Netflix’s Newest True Crime Documentary: Strong Island

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By C.W.S.

Netflix’s newest true crime production looks at an unsolved 1992 murder on Long Island and is already being met with high critical praise, including the Special Jury Award for Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival. There are many things that make this film different from previous true crime films, most notably that the filmmaker, Yance Ford, is the younger sibling of the victim. Early reviews tell of an aesthetically beautiful and emotional portrait of a black family coming up from the South to find new possibility in New York City, and the justice system that failed them more times than one. Strong Island seeks to reclaim the image of William Ford Jr., who, as the trailer states, was seemingly made by law enforcement into the prime suspect in his own murder.

To have a family member control the way a true crime film is made is to give power to those who deserve it most, those closest to the victims, those with the truest perspective on what, exactly, will help. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but I believe in true crime as an important tool in our society, but it also disappoints me often, makes me feel guilty for loving it so much. But then I hear about a film like Strong Island, and I remember The Keepers, and I remember Paradise Lost, and I remember the many others that worked genuinely toward a justice that otherwise would have never been served. And it’s important even if that justice is simply the truth finally being known. It seems that this documentary is seeking just that, the truth, rather than seeking to solve a murder. They already know who did it. But some questions do remain.

 William Ford Jr.

William Ford Jr.

William Ford Jr. was shot and killed after a verbal altercation took place in an auto-repair shop near his home on Long Island. The shooter was a 19-year-old white mechanic named Mark Reilly, who had had previous issues William, who was 24 at the time. William had threatened the shooter weeks before and thrown a vacuum into the auto repair shop where he was later killed. The shooter, who was 19, had said something insulting about their mother, Barbara, who was a teacher at the time. She created a program at Rikers Island to help girls transition out of the prison system successfully.

The shooting that happened soon after left William, who was unarmed, dead from a gun shot wound to the chest. When the case went to trial, the all-white jury did not indict the shooter apparently because there were no eye-witnesses to the shooting, though there were several witnesses to the verbal fight that occurred moments before William and the shooter went into the garage where several shots were heard.

We can spend so much time focusing on cases, on perpetrators, on justice itself, that we forget about the very real humans that exist behind these veneers. Strong Island exists to remind us that for every case, for every statistic on the news, for ever murder we research, there is a hole that echoes forever in the affected communities, in the family of the victim. There is a hole where a loved one was, and now is not, and will never again be. William Ford Jr. was different from the man that the courts and the media created. We think we know someone, we think we know someone from the bursts of news stories, from the brief family comments taken out of context. But we don’t know anything, really. And we don’t feel anything.

Strong Island is a film that seeks to make its audience feel injustice, not just analyze it.

It appears that the main fixtures of the film are both Yance, who narrates and essentially interrogates himself throughout in painful sessions of self-questioning, and Barbara, Yance and William’s mother. Barbara tells of her difficulties with police at the time of her son’s death, as well as in the following months and years. She tells of the pain of growing up in a segregated America South, and of losing her son under a segregation that continues on Long Island and elsewhere, long after the Jim Crow laws were finally changed.

 Filmmaker Yance Ford

Filmmaker Yance Ford

Yance also knows that his family is far from perfect, and this appears to be yet another point of beauty in the film. The complexity of family, the problematic nature of human beings themselves, is never justification for murder, and is never justification for not delivering the justice they are owed. By refusing to gloss over the more difficult aspects of the Ford family, Yance is able to create an even more nuanced piece of art, one that demands that we see and feel an entire family history and care. Care beyond wanting to solve a crime, care because we want to try to honor what has been lost, and care because we do not want it to happen again.

Yance worked on the film for over ten years, going as far as to hire private investigators to aid in locating key people from the 25-year-old case. Yance hopes to delve into the investigation and the subsequent legal processes, finding those responsible for turning what should have been a clear indictment for murder into a lazy, careless, and downright cruel trial. Yance and his family are seen going through the tearful anger that accompanies flimsy answers and obvious apathy.

It is as much a video essay of his life and the life of his parents, as it is a true crime film. “A deeply intimate and meditative film, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice,” Netflix has stated about their production. 

Yance Ford knows that his film will strike important and difficult conversation. He said in an interview with PEOPLE, “I look forward to having a lot of really vigorous conversations about the film, and I welcome them all.”

Strong Island will premiere on Netflix September 15.