How a White Kid Escaped Punishment After Killing a Black Man

'Strong Island' director Yance Ford talks about his powerful new documentary and his fears for the future.

by Sam Fragoso
Sep 20 2017, 5:38pm

All families have their own stories; the Fords' story is one of bloodshed. In April 1992, black 24-year-old teacher William Ford Jr. was gunned down by Mark Reilly, a white 19 year-old mechanic. Ford was unarmed, Reilly brandished a rifle, and the teenager—who had an extensive criminal record—took one shot at Ford, piercing him in the heart. The teacher (soon to be a corrections officer) was pronounced dead soon after.

For the past ten years, director Yance Ford has been investigating his family's story and the events that unfurled following his brother's murder. Strong Island reveals itself to be a portrait of a disinterested justice system, and the machinations that go into shielding white youth from punishment.

When I spoke with Yance by phone, he was a mix of overwhelmed and composed. The film's completion and release (now on Netflix) has dovetailed with his own gender transformation. "I actually misspelled the word 'odyssey' this morning," says Ford. "I was like, 'What's a synonym for journey, goddamn it? I'm not gonna use that word again!'"

Yance's journey (I can use it) has been a long one. And it's not over yet. Strong Island is just the beginning.

VICE: Watching the film again reminded me of how uniquely affecting it is. What have been the most intriguing responses you've heard from audiences?
Yance Ford: I was at Sundance—it was maybe our second screening—and someone in the audience during the Q&A said she'd been in the Bronx ADA's office for 18 years, and that in her opinion, something very wrong happened with this case. She was implying that the way that the grand jury process and investigation had been handled was problematic. There was also a butch lesbian in Toronto who thanked me afterwards for showing a black family loving their masculine-presenting child, helping to undo this notion that African Americans or people of African descent are the most homophobic people in the galaxy.

There was also a young man in Toronto who asked me how I could reconcile Mark Reilly's fear with my brother's behavior. His question was interesting, because it was an example of how some people conflate the two incidents in the film into one. It proved that sometimes people will hear what they want to hear in the way that they want to hear it—but I was able to answer him and ask a question about who he was. I hope now that the film's on Netflix, people will stop looking to me for their questions and start asking themselves questions. There's not a rhetorical question in the film. When I say, "How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?," it's a real question. Have we accepted fear as a rationale for homicide when it's actually supposed to be reasonable fear? Are we interrogating reasonable fear enough?

Do you think audiences are ready to ask those questions?
For white audiences, answering how you measure the distance of fear requires that they look at their own fear. That's the thing that's going to be tough for people. For audiences that experience this and are finally being believed because of social media, cellphone cameras, body cameras, empirical studies from people like the Marshall Project, books like The New Jim Crow... it's like, "OK, finally, now we believe you." When the data is really there to substantiate the claims of mistreatment and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system for decades. It's not new—it's just new to you.

In 2017, what are you fearful of?
I'm afraid that our civil society is being torn apart bit by bit—and not just by tweets and ridiculous statements about good people on both sides. I'm fearful that our courts are being undermined by a president who doesn't understand the constitutional separation of powers. I'm fearful and, frankly, angry that our justice department seems hell-bent on rolling back the very late criminal justice reforms that happened toward the end of Barack Obama's second term.

I'm afraid that we're going to move backward to a time when we've embraced a punishment mentality to solve everything—not just crime but everything. If you need social assistance, they're going to drug test you and make you work x amount of hours a week, and it doesn't matter if you don't have childcare. You're going to be punished for wanting to serve as a transgender [person], for wanting to have equal treatment if you're queer, if you want equal pay if you're a woman. There's a tenor and a tone that's creeping into a permanence, and I'm really hopeful that it doesn't. I don't want to say that I'm not optimistic, but I don't think that optimism is in my toolbox of feelings, honestly. I'm worried.

When do you think the punishing stops?
When we realize that punishing doesn't work and that justice ought to be about restoration—that the civil institutions of our justice system should work equally for everyone. We're a long way from there. I don't know if we'll see it in my lifetime, that's for sure. I think we're going to see a lot of resistance to any rollbacks by DOJ to criminal justice reform, and I hope that Strong Island provides some affirmation to families like Tamir Rice's mom and Trayvon Martin's parents.

But I also hope that the film reminds people that it's not just about the five years after the death of a child—it's about the 25 years after the death, the long tail. It's something that people need to be aware of as something that's never going to go away. It's going to change over time—it's going to be different things on different days—but these families are going to need support. I hear a lot of talk on the net and on my Facebook feed about self-care, and I think that as a nation we need to understand that there are a lot of people in a lot of different positions in this society who need mental healthcare. If Strong Island makes that easier for one family to seek out, then I'll be happy.

Barbara Dunmore Ford

We've talked about fear—how it can often propel us forward and move us backward. Do you feel any fear within your own personal transformation?
There's your semi-public life and your private life. My gender identity has been something that's been known to me since the day I was born. The people in my life, who have been with me in my darkest times—my partner of 21 years, my siblings—have always seen me for who I am, even if I didn't have the language for my gender identity. My mother, frankly, always saw me for who I was. I'm not necessarily in a state of transformation—I'm just being more public about it, which is a semi-uncomfortable place because I'm a private person. Just talking about my transition and when I "came out" is a bit weird, because we have this expectation that every moment of our lives and realization about ourselves is going to be lived in some public arena.

You don't like being the focus of the conversation.
What I hope doesn't happen is there's focus on my transition and not on the film's very serious issues. And if we're going to focus on me as a transgender African American, then we need to extrapolate from the violence that's perpetrated against trans women of colour especially: How many of those murders have gone unsolved? How many of those murders aren't even being investigated?

If people are curious about transgender identity, I'm going to pivot that conversation to an important place, which is how trans people of colour aren't actually safe on in our country, and how I have to negotiate that in my travel to and from press and festivals. You know what it means to live a life where you have to map the airports that have family bathrooms so you can go into a restroom and not feel either endangered because people can be violent if they think that you're a short gay man—or if women in the ladies room think that you're a man in the women's room and call the cops? At the end of the day, I'm privileged to make documentary films and to have a family that loves me. My sister is my best friend. Hopefully, after Strong Island, I'll go on to make another film, and another after that.

Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy, a weekly podcast of conversations with filmmakers, writers, musicians, journalists, and, once, his mother. His work has appeared in NPR, Vanity Fair, and Playboy. He lives in Los Angeles.

strong island