On April 7, 1992, William Ford Jr. walked into a Long Island body shop to pick up his car. Minutes later he was dead, a single .22-caliber bullet lodged in his heart. He had no criminal record or history of violence; in fact, the 24-year-old Howard graduate had just passed his first exam to become a New York State corrections officer. So what happened that night? And why was the white man who shot him not only never indicted but hardly questioned?
Strong Island (available now on Netflix) is a quietly devastating attempt by William’s brother Yance Ford to find answers, and the result won the first-time documentarian a Special Jury Award at Sundance. But the movie is not so much about seeking justice — it’s obvious nearly from the outset that there wasn’t any then, and there won’t be now — as it is about exploring the void William’s death left behind, and why instead of bringing his family together, it ultimately blew them apart. The oldest child and only boy, he was adored by his two sisters (Yance had not yet transitioned to male) and treasured by the parents who sacrificed almost everything to escape 1970s Brooklyn for the nearby suburban idyll of Central Islip. But prejudice followed them from the city as surely as it had from their native South — a reality cruelly reinforced, Yance notes with calm fury, by a police response that effectively “turned my brother into the prime suspect in his own murder.”
Interspersing old photographs and home video with intimate, often painful interviews (William’s family and friends are thoughtful and forthcoming; certain officials less so), Strong builds a poignant, methodical portrait of loss. Telling William’s story won’t bring him back, but at least it will let the world know he lived. B+