In April 1992, William Ford, Jr.—a Black 24-year-old high school teacher who was training to becoming a police officer—was fatally shot inside a Long Island, N.Y. auto body shop by Mark Reilly, a 19-year-old white auto mechanic.
Reilly was arrested for manslaughter but claimed self-defense in an altercation with Ford inside the shop. Though Ford was not armed, the grand jury decided not to indict Reilly, following what we sadly know to be American tradition.
In Strong Island, which premiered on Netflix in September, director and producer Yance Ford, who is also William Ford’s brother, tells his sibling’s story through the lens of his family and those plagued by race in America. The winner of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Storytelling, the 107-minute documentary film is an intimate and contemplative look at what happens when a family is left without answers in the face of injustice.
“The one thing that I was really clear about going into Strong Island was the aesthetic signature of the film,” Ford said Wednesday night during a social screening event hosted by New America NYC at Tumblr headquarters. “I knew that it needed to be formal film, otherwise the intense emotion and frankly the devastation of my family [would be lost].”
Ford also expressed a desire to give his family members the proper platform to convey their perspective. “I had seen thousands of documentary films over my career and I know that Black characters rarely take center frame.”
The story of his brother’s death is a painful one. When police arrived to the scene at the auto repair shop, William was on the ground, dying, while his friend, Kevin, was trying to figure out what happened. But rather than approach them as victims, they were treated as the criminals. Meanwhile, in a bizarre turn of events, Reilly was escorted away in a limousine.
Throughout the film, we’re also told the story of how Ford’s family had moved from the south to escape racial discrimination, believing a better life was possible if they followed societal expectations.
“She expected it to work out,” Ford told The Guardian of his mother in September. “But we’ve seen that, however strongly you buy into the American dream, however many of the rules of blackness that America draws for you you follow, no matter what you do, who you are, where you are, you are not safe, and that’s quite a heavy thing to realize.”
As far as Reilly’s whereabouts, Ford is no longer concerned.
“Getting to that place was a really freeing moment in the process of making this film for me,” he said on Wednesday. “When I first started it, like many true crime films, I was like ‘What happened?’ Unfortunately, the answer to that is really quickly arrived at. A white guy shot a Black guy because he was scared. And that Black guy happened to be my brother and the white guy happens to be Mark Reilly, but there’s nothing unique about that story. So when I realized the ‘what’ was actually the historical ‘what,’ that the reason is the historical reason, I put down my need to know anything about Mark Reilly.
Strong Island is streaming on Netflix now. Watch the trailer below.