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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Strong Island

Now is the time of year when I see the movies nominated for Academy Awards that I haven't seen yet. I'll start with a nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category, Strong Island. Directed by Yance Ford, it's a sober examination of the murder of Ford's brother, and the subsequent mishandling of the case by law enforcement.

Ford, incidentally, is the first transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar (he was a woman, and now is a man). His brother, William, was shot to death during an altercation with mechanics at a body shop. The shooter was white, William was black, and and though William was unarmed, the grand jury did not indict because there was a case made that William was a threatening figure and the killer was scared.

The murder was committed in 1992, long before the recent spate of white people killing black people and getting away with it, perhaps starting with the death of Trayvon Martin. Ford interviews the detective who handled the case, who is apologetic about explaining it to him. Ford's mother, who is really the spine of the film, despairs because she taught her children to judge people by character, not color. In retrospect she sees this as a mistake.

In addition to a film about justice denied, it is also an interesting look at how families grieve. Ford and his sister, Lauren, discuss how they avoided talking about it. Lauren says they each stayed in their own heads. Ford's mother couldn't understand why her husband didn't grab a gun and go shoot somebody (he had a stroke a year later). What is the healthy thing to do when a 24-year-old son and brother dies violently? In instances like this it's common for friends and family to gather together, but Ford remembers wanting to kick them all out of the house.

As a film, Strong Island (the family lived on Long Island, which has a significant black population but a segregated one, with pockets in towns) is meditative and grim. There are many tight close-ups of Ford. He does not discuss being transgender, but does talk about being queer, something his brother never knew. After being on the telephone he breaks down in tears and calls a significant other, but nothing more is made of this. Perhaps all that will be in Yance Ford's next film, which I would love to see.

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