Oscars 2018: All you need to know

The story of Yance Ford, the first transgender director to be nominated for an Oscar

A still from Strong Island  

“I never told William I was queer. I wish I had,” regrets Yance Ford, as he revisits the days leading up to the murder of his 24-year-old brother by a 19-year-old white mechanic. Last month, Yance became the first transgender director to win an Oscar nomination in the 90 years of the Academy Awards (Strong Island is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category). It’s not a film that explores the complexities of gender and sexual identity of a black teenage girl. It could have been, if not for the cold-blooded killing of Yance’s elder brother.

On April 7, 1992, William Ford, Jr. was shot by Mark Reilly. The sudden death left the Ford family devastated, but they maintained faith in the U.S judicial system. “Just wait till we get to court,” said William’s mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford, as she buried her son. But justice was never served: a grand jury of 23 white people decided that the case was not worthy of being heard. It was a case of self-defence, they declared.


Two decades later, as Barbara looks unflinchingly into the camera, she tells Yance, who is filming her, “I will die believing the jury didn’t care because my son was a man of colour.” In 2012, she died, holding on to that belief.

Made over 10 years, Strong Island is not an investigative documentary of what went down that night but a mirror to the injustice that followed. It’s a personal and haunting chronicle of what it is like to be black in modern-day America, and how the colour of your skin can decide your destiny, even beyond your lifetime.

Through family albums, the film begins by painting a picture of upward social mobility where Yance’s parents — an educated black couple — move to New York City for better opportunities. His mother starts a school in a jail for female convicts, while his father mans the subway with aspirations of becoming an engineer. After their children are born the family moves to Long Island and lives in a predominantly black neighbourhood. The children go to college and William aspires to become a corrections officer. The documentary argues that, like with all black families in America, the Fords’ identity is inseparable from their race.

Last year, O.J.: Made in America, which won the 89th Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, explored how O.J. Simpson, a celebrity who distanced himself from his ‘blackness’ all through his adult life, embraced it again in order to be perceived as the victim of a racist law enforcement system.

In Strong Island, William is a victim of the same system that Simpson’s lawyers manipulated. Yance discovers that his brother was made out to be a monstrous figure, one who created enough “reasonable fear” in his attacker to shoot him, a perception fuelled by prejudice, the filmmaker tell us.

Lurking figure

Unlike O.J.: Made in America, which delves deep into the backgrounds of the murderer and the victims, Yance is not interested in giving space to his brother’s killer. He reduces him to a lurking figure, a white man. “He looks like every white man I’ve ever seen,” he says, looking directly into the camera in a tight frame. For the filmmaker, Strong Island is a way of seeking redemption for William by telling the world his story in a way only his family and friends can.

Almost like a novel in motion, the documentary breaks free from the traditional aesthetics of non-fiction narrative. Its storytelling is non-linear and filled with well-crafted visual metaphors, such as an upside-down camera tracking a street, time-lapse of clouds unfurling over the Ford residence, and static shots of the garage where the murder took place.

As the narrator, Yance looks into the camera, with frames held tightly over his face, covering the entire screen. It’s claustrophobic, melancholic, confrontational and confessional. There’s no way you can look anywhere else but straight into his eyes, and imagine a life where the colour of your skin determines your destiny.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 10:24:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/being-black-in-america-the-story-of-yance-ford-the-first-transgender-person-to-win-an-oscar-nomination/article22633529.ece

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