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Forced Perspective: Yance Ford’s Strong Island

Strong Island (Photo by Steve Dietl, courtesy of Netflix)

Consider the physical closeness necessary to feel air pass out of the lungs and through the nose of a Black man, the spatial distance needed for your nose to touch his sigh. Face to almost blurry face — so much that when the corners of his mouth dart up, down and around, when talking or gesturing or from involuntary conduct, you notice the landscape between his corresponding cheek and chin bow like the warping of a shimmering trampoline. The pinhole pores of this brown-laden terrain become another optical reveal that transpires only after your mind’s eye adjusts to the formerly uniform texture. Now, you think, his skin would have a horizon, if on it you were the tiniest thing.

It is with this facial legibility, this direct gaze into the camera, that Strong Island’s director Yance Ford says, “ … if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.”

Ford is referring to an explicit inquiry in Strong Island: Why wasn’t the confessed killer of his brother subject to trial? He contextualizes the incident after scrupulously reconstructing his middle class family, which then makes that family’s disintegration particularly dispiriting. In the aftermath of the murder, we soon realize that the veteran hands of race-related injustice poisoned their family well. Their rope-burnt palms didn’t reach out from retirement into the middle-class suburbs of New Jersey. They have been dutifully executing their directive on the American taxpayers’ dime.

Beyond Strong Island’s logline exists a documentary blueprint for a Black consciousness. What appear to be individual stylistic choices are instead a collection of filmic resolutions born in response to a medium of knowledge formation scandalously complicit in the development and reinforcement of the U.S.’s racist imagination. For example, in step with bell hooks’s idea that the Black family archive was the only site of resistance to the fallacious imagery of Black people composing the American visual zeitgeist, Ford does the work of an archivist carpenter in his point-of-view handling of his family photos, building the Pietà of his truth on an empty lot in history. He creates a cinematic language unique to the demands of a tragedy, identity and culture that, in relation to power, does not speak for itself.

In addition to being watched, Strong Island should be read. Only after my second time with the film did I realize that Ford gives the audience what he was deprived of: time, in 2017, with his brother William Ford.

Ford premiered Strong Island at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Storytelling, followed by the international premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has won numerous awards as it has traveled the festival circuit and will be released this fall by Netflix. The aesthetic “how” of this film is where we start the conversation.

Filmmaker: So, Yance, getting right into it, my first experience watching Strong Island was really strange because it carried me. There was a sense that it could carry consciousness. I was so intensely aligned with what was happening and what was being said and what was being shown — I think, partially, because of the aesthetic rigor of the film. It’s so freaking concentrated, all of the shots. There’s such inflexibility to the aesthetic, like binocular compression. The frames are so, so tight. I wonder, as this is your first feature film, where did those choices come from?

Ford: This is going to seem like a roundabout way of answering your question, but one of my favorite novels is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. It actually helped me to develop a word to describe the way that I look at things. I like to call myself an “observationist,” which is to say that as I grew up, I developed an artistic practice rooted in the act of looking that contributes to my interest in and use of formalism.

I look for a long time because there is more to everything than one’s first glance might indicate, especially when you develop that sensibility of looking and observation as a Black person in America. You know, there’s looking, and then there’s making sure that you look, which is about assessing situations and your safety within a particular situation — whether or not you ought to drive down one street or another, or whether or not it’s time for you to go home from a party — that might otherwise seem banal and harmless.

So, there are all types of looking, but when you’re Black and grow up in the suburbs pursuing the American Dream, the length of the gaze and the lingering of the gaze is really the only way to actually get below the surface. So, that’s where I honestly think that my propensity for this rigid or very still frame comes from.
One of my goals when I set out to shoot Strong Island was that we were not going to shoot it from an outsider’s perspective. We were going to shoot it like the camera was literally a vehicle for my eye, not a substitute for the gaze of the audience. And I think that is why the film grabs you immediately because it looks at characters in a different way — the way that I look at them, right? Which is —

Filmmaker: Which is allowing them to look back, in fact.

Ford: Exactly.

Filmmaker: How did you get to that direct camera address?

Ford: I’m a formalist, but I’m a very, very precise formalist, and I think the experience for some people of watching Strong Island is uncomfortable because of my precise formalism. Because the film is constructed, and when I say constructed, I don’t mean fabricated …

Filmmaker: Because all films are constructed. You’re talking about a different type of documentary.

Ford: I’m talking about a deliberate process of decision-making about what the film was going to look like at each opportunity. So, you don’t wind up with material like my interviews, for example, without first having thought through exactly who this character is in the movie, why that character needs to be so close and why that character needs to speak directly to camera. And it’s partly because I have had a lifetime of predominantly white people misinterpreting the expression on my face, so one of the things that I wanted to do was to make my face inescapable and, also, legible.

I feel that most white audiences are not accustomed to being addressed directly by Black characters in a way that doesn’t apologize in advance for what they’re about to say — that does not foreground the reception of what they’re going to say, but instead focuses on the content of their statements and leaves the reception of the content to the audience. Among the people of color who have been in the Strong Island audiences, most recently in the U.K., I’ve had people say to me, “Please show this film in Brixton because we are dealing with these issues all the time.” It’s like: We have not seen this. We need this film because it is an affirmation of our experience.

When I was returning from Sheffield Doc/Fest, it was just at the point that the Grenfell building was going up like the towering inferno, and I noticed in a lounge, where the television was on mute. And so there was this image of a building full of dying black and brown people in an airport lounge where I was the only person of color, and the television was turned down and folks were having drinks and checking their e-mail and having conversations.

And this is a perfect example of why I don’t want to let people look away from my character or look away from my mother: because there is an entire group of people who get to turn away from the violence perpetuated against black and brown people and pretend that it doesn’t exist. And the rest of us are left to sort out the remains, both literally and figuratively. I would say that that’s why Strong Island is as immediate and as intimate and as inescapable in its construction — because the person who murdered my brother was able to get away with his crime.

Filmmaker: In the film, you actually invite people to leave the theater. It came across as an earnest invitation to me. Have people left? And who are you talking to with that?

Ford: I haven’t seen anybody leave at the beginning of the film. Not yet.

Filmmaker: There is rigor to the way you address the audience. How did you go about creating that incisive language and tone? Did you write those interviews as dialogue and rehearse them? What was the process like?

Ford: It all came out during the process of shooting my interviews. I never knew what questions were going to be asked of me. I literally set up a wall of sound blankets between me and the crew and the person who was going to be interviewing me. There was a level of intensity to those interviews that I don’t think Robb (Moss, DP) or Joslyn (Barnes, producer) had ever experienced before because there were moments when I almost got up and walked out. There were moments when I was enraged.

There was a moment when I was asked a question by Robb — I don’t think it made it into the film — but I was like, “Wait, you want me to fucking convince you that my parents were afraid?”

Filmmaker: Was this tension racial?

Ford: I think that Robb and Jos deliberately pushed some buttons. I think that they deliberately asked some questions from a liberal white vantage point, so that I would be able to speak directly to that perspective, which says at almost every turn, “Your loved one is dead, we grieve for you and we hope that you will heal. And we expect you to forgive and offer the person who’s taken the life of your loved one redemption.”

Then, there was a dawning realization that the first version of Strong Island (edited by Shannon Kennedy and produced by Esther Robinson) was missing something from me. Something insanely difficult: a willingness to move away from my mother’s grief into something more unsettling. I left the country and started the edit over from scratch, and the final version of Strong Island is radically different. There are people who see Strong Island and say they “miss my mother,” even though she is central to the final film. I wonder what they miss? Is it the comfort of a grieving Black mother or decentering of empathy as the primary expectation of white audiences? Is it the affirmation of what Black people have been saying about the criminal justice system for so long?

My team — Robb, Joslyn, Janus (Billeskov Jansen, editor) and Signe (Byrge Sørensen, coproducer) — were really brilliant in understanding the way in which structural violence and injustice needed to be interrogated. And once I let go of my need to apologize for my anger, I think that my character and the film itself was able to stop apologizing for the justified anger of Black Americans.

Filmmaker: At what point is it okay to be angry unapologetically?

Ford: Well, that’s the thing. What Strong Island shows you is that for my brother it was never okay to be unapologetically angry, even though he was well within his right to be. Which is one of the reasons why I felt like I needed to listen to my mother when she said in her own interview that when she was testifying before the grand jury, she started to cry and that she hated that moment. She hated that moment. That’s when I realized — wait, wait, wait, my mother is telling me what she wants. My mother is telling me what she means here. She says it.

Filmmaker: I think she is slightly off center but almost sitting on a throne in her own kitchen. It’s very reminiscent of Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series. Your mother seems to be the essential psychological pillar of the house. And she’s speaking with a whole world of her own creation behind her, and it’s quite beautiful and really familiar for me, you know?

Ford: Familiar in what way? I have a feeling it has to do with the South, but tell me more about that.

Filmmaker: Well, it has to do with my relationship to my dad’s mother in North Carolina and my mother as I grew up; the Black woman often wields a distinct power in the household. You very rarely see that extended out into society, you very rarely see that move beyond the block or cul-de-sac. It’s normally a Black character who is always made to serve as some projection landscape for relatability.

Ford: Correct. Absolutely, yeah.

Filmmaker: Given historic depictions of Black women on screen, your mother isn’t really that relatable… or, actually, we haven’t had a chance to relate to anyone like her.

Ford: Right, right. I have had so many people say to me that my mother is an incredible woman. My mother, whether it was picking up with our homework from where my father left off or making sure that we knew what it meant to be Black in America, was that eloquent all of the time. They loved being Black and recognized that being Black in America was inherently dangerous for us, and that Blackness represented an inherent “danger” for other people.

Filmmaker: An inherent confrontation, both of the mind and body.

Ford: Exactly. An inherent confrontation. And so, when I decided where everyone would be placed in relation to the camera and frame, it was the natural place for my mother to be in the center of her kitchen, which was the center of our home. And if my father had not died four years after my brother, he would have occupied a similar position because our parents raised us as a parental couple. My father’s silence in the film is due to the fact that he died within the statistical time frame for fathers who have lost children to homicide.

Filmmaker: I had no idea that such a statistic even existed.

Ford: Yeah, and my brother died within the statistical time frame of young Black men in America, before his 25th year. Strong Island is grounded in the realism of what it means to be Black in America.

Filmmaker: It’s also grounded in irregular representations of Blackness as you use aesthetics and elements of science and archival research to historicize your family and physically control the mediation in front of your audience … such an overt display of control. Your mother seemed almost deposed? Can you talk about that?

Ford: Well, it was twofold. How does one make a film about something that happened more than 20 years in the past? For me, it was, you set the camera down, you focus on the person who did not have a chance to give their testimony — both in the tradition of the Black church in terms of testifying and in the legal sense of testimony — and you press “record.” You ask a question and then you get out of the way. There’s so little evidence available to me — no crime scene photographs, no autopsy photographs — because the case did not go to trial. All grand jury minutes are sealed. The case file is sealed. So, the other part of the aesthetic was to present the photographs of what they call “evidence of life,” like when someone has been kidnapped, this proof that this family had existed.

One of my work-study jobs was photographing the print collection at my undergraduate college using a copy stand. So, I thought, great! The best way to do this is to just set up the world’s most expensive copy stand and put a C300 on a jib arm.

For some people, the control I exerted means that the telling is less authentic. But as the author of this story, I get to choose. Every movement of framing, every decision and its deliberateness is meant to say, “You are seeing what I want you to see.” It was actually meant to help people focus on the content in a deeper and more authentic way. I feel that’s actually more honest.

Filmmaker: Speaking of authenticity, there is this moment when your gender transition intersects with the film.

Ford: Yes, you know how important that phone call with my brother was in the film. And when I say I felt like he was talking to the “real me,” that line, that moment screams. It was so important to me because my brother made a call that he would essentially make to another guy to boast about having defended his (our) mother. And the fact that this call came in to me felt like a recognition of who I was. Even though I didn’t have the word “transgender” in 1992, it was in my bones. The call was so precious to me that I kept it a secret. And, in hindsight, that was the locus of both immense satisfaction and profound regret.

Filmmaker: Why do you think that viewers and critics haven’t commented on the profound importance of that phone call for you or the control you are asserting as resistance to the historic lack of control of African-American imagery and narratives of young men like William? Why are they lost?

Ford: Well — you know — I’m just going to say it. I think the images of Black people have been made by white filmmakers for white audiences for so long that images made by Black filmmakers are incomprehensible. It’s almost as if someone needs the Rosetta Stone to decipher what they’re seeing, as opposed to taking what they’re seeing at face value in the same way in which white filmmakers have expected and have experienced their representations of African-Americans to be taken at face value. Some people feel these insights couldn’t possibly have happened during the course of production; they had to have all been shot after everything was “in the can,” and Yance and the team knew what holes they needed to fill.

But what is it really? An inability to accept that African-Americans can be both present in their condition of injustice and have an active political analysis of that condition of injustice without turning it into personal failure. And I think that’s also like that moment with my brother and the phone call — the conditions of injustice have been conflated with personal failure for so long that the only thing that people can hear in that scene is my sense of guilt.

They cannot also hear the very deep expression of love and connection to my brother that exists at the same time in that moment. And it’s the inability to separate regret from blame. I can regret not having said anything to my parents about the phone call, while still holding the phone call dear to me, and, at the same time, not blame myself for William’s death. There is a multilayered inability to recognize Black characters in their full complexity.

Filmmaker: And it’s a long-standing conditioning.

Ford: Yeah, it’s like either you get reduced to Aunt Jemima or Uncle Remus or conflated with a character on The Wire. Like, there is nothing in between. Black filmmakers have always portrayed a vast and wide and deep lived experience between those tropes, but you have to be willing to see it. It’s not just an ability to see it. It’s a willingness to see it. And I think that just too many filmmakers and too many audiences for too long have been unwilling to see this kind of complexity that you and I and some of the people whose work that I am inspired by — like Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Kevin Jerome Everson — see.

Filmmaker: I like to say Black lives are silhouettes backlit by history.

Ford: Black lives are like soap bubbles. You can pop them, and in 1992, when my brother was killed, he literally disappeared.

Filmmaker: That’s a beautiful, haunted metaphor.

Ford: Strong Island refuses to accept that disappearance or apologize for this refusal — it moves toward the casual fragility that Black people have always had to live with in this country.

Filmmaker: Yance, if Black lives are soap bubbles, then I’d say Strong Island is very much a cathedral, something masterfully stable to give credence to a fallen angel, for lack of a better term, you know?

Ford: My brother was not an angel, but he still had his right to life. He did not deserve or provoke a deadly response the night he was killed, but still, someone was able to murder him and get away with it. Boom, bam, POP!

Filmmaker: Pop.

Ford: Exactly. What was it? Is it 3rd Bass, “pop goes the weasel and the weasel goes pop”?

Filmmaker: I almost said that, but I thought it was so inappropriate. But you can say that.

Ford: No, that’s my sense of humor. I say I’m not angry, and then I punch a wall — oh, the irony.

Filmmaker: I thought that was a great moment in the film. When that happens, I made a really hard, confused face.

Ford: Exactly. The juxtaposition of a seemingly contradictory statement with this explosive visual is about how hard and how far can I push you? At what point do you recognize something or, maybe, at what point are you willing see it?

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