“Strong Island”: Trans Filmmaker Yance Ford Searches for Justice After His Brother’s Racist Murder

We speak with Yance Ford, who on Tuesday became the first trans director to be nominated for an Academy Award. His film Strong Island is up for best documentary. Ford, who is African-American, chronicles what happened to his own family after his brother, William Ford Jr., was shot dead by a white mechanic in Long Island, New York, in 1992. The killer was questioned by police but never charged. “My brother’s case 25 years ago simply affirms what we are seeing now,” Ford says. “It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules. The justice system isn’t meant to work for people of color in this country.” We also speak with producer, Joslyn Barnes, co-founder of Louverture Films.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The 2018 Academy Award nominations marks a historic first: Yance Ford became the first trans director to be nominated for an Academy Award. His film Strong Island is up for best documentary. Ford is African-American, chronicling what happened to his own family after his brother, William Ford Jr., was shot dead by a white mechanic in Long island, New York, in 1992. The killer was questioned by police but never charged. This is the trailer for Strong Island.

YANCE FORD: You stumble out of the garage and into the yard, where you fall.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: I said to the officer, “Where is my son? I want to be with my son.”

YANCE FORD: You lie on the ground, bullet through your heart, and know you will never see your sisters again, your mother, your father. That was the beginning.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: I did not feel that we were received as parents of a victim.

YANCE FORD: Our blackness and how to survive being black in America was something that our parents instilled in us extraordinarily well.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: No officer spoke to me. No officer would look at me.

YANCE FORD: You hear that your son is being investigated, and you grow more and more afraid. The police had turned my brother into the prime suspect in his own murder.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: Your father said to me, “These are vicious people. Your son was shot down like a dog.”

YANCE FORD: This kid is going to actually get away with murder.

UNIDENTIFIED: I’m not willing to discuss any of my prior cases with anybody.

YANCE FORD: My brother was not armed, not violent. In no way is his death justifiable. Twenty-three white people will decide no crime has even been committed.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: It was like all the sound left the world.

YANCE FORD: I’m not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer to Strong Island, which has just been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. We’re joined now in New York, by Democracy Now! video stream, by the film’s director, Yance Ford, who worked on this documentary for a decade. We’re also joined here in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival, where Yance just was, by Joslyn Barnes, who produced Strong Island. She’s co-founder of Louverture Films with Danny Glover.

Yance Ford and Joslyn Barnes, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Yance, first of all, congratulations! You have not only been nominated for an Oscar, but you have made history as the first trans director to ever be nominated by the Academy.

YANCE FORD: Thank you, Amy, and good morning. I am just — I’m flabbergasted, I have to be honest with you. Strong Island has been a labor of love and dedication on the part of so many people, that it’s just an incredible recognition to be honored. And to be the first trans director — and, I believe, the first African-American trans director — to be nominated for an Academy Award is incredibly, incredibly special to me.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday —

YANCE FORD: Oh, dear.

AMY GOODMAN: — as the Oscar nominees were being announced. We were actually live, broadcasting Democracy Now! here in Park City. But this is how Yance Ford and his partner reacted to the news.

ANNOUNCER: Icarus, Last Men in Aleppo.

YANCE FORD: Oh, my god!

AMANDA: Oh, my god!

YANCE FORD: Did they even say it?

AMANDA: Oh, my god!

AMY GOODMAN: So, there is Yance and his partner responding to being named as an Oscar nominee. Well, Yance, let’s talk about this film and this journey you have taken, that actually started long before you even started making the film. First of all, tell us what Strong Island means, the title.

YANCE FORD: Well, “Strong Island” is slang for Long Island, New York. And it really grew out of — what may surprise people, it really grew out of the very vibrant hip-hop scene that, you know, is located and still generates artists out of Long Island. So, “Strong Island,” for kids and for hip-hop heads, is a term that’s always been used to refer to this place where kids from the city, you know, moved to the suburbs but still wanted to hang on to, I think, a part of their urban heritage. So, that’s where “Strong Island” — that’s where “Strong Island” comes from.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us the story of your family. Talk about what happened in 1992 to your brother William.

YANCE FORD: Well, in 1992, my brother and his girlfriend got into a car accident. My brother negotiated with his girlfriend and the mechanic who hit her car that the shop would repair it, if his girlfriend didn’t report the accident to her insurance company or the police.

Fast-forward about two-and-a-half months later, my brother, on the night of April 7th, after my mother and his girlfriend picked up the car from the garage and brought it home and were followed home, frankly, by someone from the garage, he went to the garage to confront the owner, a man named Tom Datre Jr. At some point during his confrontation with the owner, which wasn’t physical — it was actually a threat to come back to the garage when he became a law enforcement officer and to reveal what was going on at the place — it was a known chop shop — and to shut the place down. Mark Reilly made himself visible to William. He walked out of the garage, and, you know, William saw him and recognized him as the person who had cursed out my mother and his girlfriend on a previous visit to the garage. And, you know, he sort of comes out, goes right back in. William follows him, turns the corner and, essentially, is shot, and stumbles back out into the yard, where he sort of collides with his friend Kevin, who heard the gunshot and ran toward William. He fell to the ground and, essentially, bled — bled to death internally by the time he got to Sunnybrook University Hospital.

Mark Reilly was brought before a grand jury in August of that year, an all-white grand jury. And despite what people who have been both inside and outside of prosecutor offices have told me about the case, they — you know, and their analysis of the case, that grand jury declined to return an indictment. And so, Mark Reilly went home without facing trial. And my family was left to, essentially, deal with the fallout and failure of this civic institution that we had all been raised to believe would work for us, if we, you know, followed the old American rules, right? Like you behave, you work, and the justice system will work for you when you need it. And my brother’s case, 25 years ago, simply affirms what we are seeing now, which is, it doesn’t matter if you follow the rules. The justice system isn’t meant to work for people of color in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip from Strong Island. Yance, this is you, because you’re one of the subjects in the film.

YANCE FORD: Countless number of times, and all hours of the night, during the summer after my brother was killed, I could look outside the window, and there was a car parked across the street. That car and whoever was in that car was watching our house and trying to intimidate my parents. The phone rang in the middle of the night, every night, for months. When I was home, I unplugged all of the phones in the house, except for the one in my room, so that my parents could sleep through the night, so that they wouldn’t have to pick up the phone and say “Hello” and not have anyone respond, so that they wouldn’t have to hang up the phone and go to the window and see the car sitting across the street.

Having grown up in the South, where the cops and the Klan were one and the same, my parents didn’t turn to the police for protection. They had already felt that the police had turned their own son into the prime suspect in his own murder.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Yance, that is you in the documentary. The interviews with you, with your sister, with your mother are heartbreaking, are so deeply profound, as you talk about the death of your brother William, also the death of your family. But how did you go from the murder of your brother to the concept behind this documentary, what you wanted to convey with this? You also used it to investigate your brother’s death.

YANCE FORD: That’s right. You know, Amy, I think that there are very few people who intersect with issues so personally. And I realized that that intersection, that my experience losing my brother and losing my family in the aftermath of his death — you know, I started making the film 15 years after he was killed. And I decided that the narrative of his life had been completely rewritten by someone whose — you know, essentially, whose freedom was at stake. And I needed to correct that record. I needed to, you know, reveal who William was. But I also needed to reveal the way in which he was, essentially, criminalized.

And so, what I decided to do with this film was to put black characters in the center of the frame and to have their experiences verified by themselves. There’s no outside authority in this film that says, “Yes, you’re right,” or “These people are telling the truth.” It was very important to me, conceptually, that the film be driven by black characters, because so often black people and brown people and folks who lose unarmed loved ones to violence, they get shoved out of the way, as if they are somehow unreliable witnesses to the lives of their dead. And in fact, the people in the film — William’s best friend Kevin, who was with him the night that he was shot, Harvey, who knew him from Howard University — they are the most reliable people, because they are able to talk about William in his full complexity, as opposed to reducing William to this stereotype, which, if you listen to the detective in the film, you would think that my brother was the Incredible Hulk, when, really, my brother was 5 feet 8 inches tall and described by the coroner as obese.

So, the entire — you know, the driving motive, one of the driving motives, behind Strong Island is to reveal William as a whole, as a 360-degree character, including his faults, and, by doing so, still saying, despite all of his faults, despite the fact that he might not have been the perfect black victim, this killing was still unlawful and should have gone to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Yance Ford, you ask, in this documentary, “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Explain.

YANCE FORD: Well, reasonable fear is the concept that says you are justified in responding to a threat, you know, with deadly force if your life is at stake. And it’s sort of the driving question in the film, because — you know, New York is not actually a stand-your-ground state. This is not one of those states. New York is a state that is governed by laws of proportional force. Right? So, for my brother to be unarmed and to confront a mechanic, and for him to shoot him despite the fact that William didn’t have a weapon, you know, raises the question of how deeply seated the fear of the black body is, the fear of black men is, in our culture, so much so that a grand jury would believe that it was justifiable to shoot and kill an unarmed man, when, you know, Mr. Reilly had many other choices that night. And his choices weren’t scrutinized. My brother’s choices were scrutinized.

And so, I think it’s important to interrogate how you measure reasonable fear and who gets to decide whose fear is reasonable, because we see in these cases that, more often than not, you know, the person who has the justification or who has the historical fear, as Joslyn has explained, when talking about the film — you know, actually, the historical fear belongs to the person of color who winds up dead, not to the white person who overreacts with deadly force in the situations.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to bring — we’re going to bring Joslyn Barnes into the conversation. We’re talking to Yance Ford, who just made history, the first trans director, the first trans African-American director, as well, to be nominated for Academy Award. This is Democracy Now! We’ll continue to talk about his documentary, Strong Island. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “All in the Western Land” by Álvaro Barriuso. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. And as we broadcast our show on Tuesday, the Oscar nominations were announced. It was just about two-thirds of the way through the show, and it was there that we learned that Yance Ford had made history: the first trans director to be nominated for an Academy Award for his film Strong Island. We’re also joined, in addition to Yance Ford from his home in Queens, New York — we’re joined by Joslyn Barnes, the producer of Strong Island. I just asked Yance that question: What is the measure of reasonable fear? Use that as a launching point to talk about why you got involved, your film company, Louverture Films, and the philosophy behind it.

JOSLYN BARNES: Thanks, Amy. Yeah, I think this is a really important aspect of the film, this questioning of what underpins self-defense cases and how racialized perception is intertwined with the justice system and who gets to decide what is reasonable fear, and then flipping that question, flipping that perspective, to talk about whose fear is actually reasonable, from, you know, really bringing the historical element and bringing this question of loss and grief, and entwining that in our own interrogation with history, with the historical weight of loss, that has been the experience of the African-American community. I think our company was created to offer different perspectives, particularly perspectives that have been marginalized, but which are more and more important, which are more important than ever, I should say, in today’s conversation. And Yance is a truth teller. And our relationship to the truth, and who tells the truth, I think, has become even more important.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, as Yance made this film over a decade, more and more police killings were being made public. I won’t say they increased, I’ll say they were getting more attention.

JOSLYN BARNES: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So you both decided to edit the film outside of the United States?

JOSLYN BARNES: Yeah, there was a point where Yance had a cut of the film. Yance had been working on the film for four years, when I came into the project and joined Yance. And we were in dialogue for about a year. He had put the film on hold for a while to decide how to reconceive the film. I think he felt that the film was sitting in the house of grief and that there was no place to move from grief. And so, we made a decision to edit — to start the edit from scratch. And there were killings, you know, continuously. And we decided to leave the country and actually go overseas, so that he could concentrate and fully focus on the creative element.

We went to Denmark. There was a great editor who was available there at the time, Janus Billeskov Jansen, who had worked on The Act of Killing with Joshua Oppenheimer. And we decided that this was — Yance and Janus met for four days together, interrogated each other and decided that they could work together. And I think that that was a — that was a very difficult decision to make and very risky decision to take, but I think that Yance — for me, it was important that Yance was making the film that he wanted to make. And, you know, people refer to the film as personal. And I think that, of course, that is true, but, you know, personal is also the language of the dispossessed, in this case. Nobody wants to make a film about the killing of their brother. This is an artist who I think really understood that violence, you know, doesn’t confer what it promises, and actually decided to use narrative and cinema to recuperate what was possible through narrative, just really seize the field that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Strong Island is about the killing of an African-American man in Long Island, New York, the murder of an African-American man by a white mechanic. That man, the white mechanic, was never even charged. A central figure in this documentary is Yance’s mother, and I want to turn to a clip of Strong Island of Yance’s mom.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: Your father said to me, “Don’t do anything to hurt my daughters. Don’t do anything to hurt my girls. These are vicious people. Your son was shot down like a dog. You’re not going to be with them always. I’m not with them always. The girls are all we have left.” I wanted him to be angry. I wanted him to be outraged. I wanted him to — I wanted him to get a gun to avenge my son’s death. He became silent.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Yance Ford’s documentary, Strong Island. That’s Yance Ford’s mother. Talk about your mother and how important she is to your family and to understanding what happened to William Ford, your brother, and what didn’t happen to his murderer.

YANCE FORD: You know, my mother is shown in the film in her kitchen — right? — which is the center of our home and the center of, you know, the place where I grew up, and contrary to what we often see in the news — right? — which is black people in their state of grief, but not in a place where they are fully aware of an analysis of what is happening and the structural failures and an analysis of the structural failure. My mother is wholly able to explain what happened to our family. She’s wholly able to, you know, explain what she saw in the meetings with the DA and during her testimony before the grand jury. And her analysis was spot-on.

She wrote a letter to, you know, the district attorney saying that they hoped for a full, fair and impartial investigation, because we, too, are the people. And that full, fair and impartial investigation should have resulted in the case going to trial. It didn’t. And when that happened, my mother was also able to say, you know, that she made the mistake of raising her children to believe that they should judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. And I think that that is probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard anyone say — and the fact that she happens to be my mother notwithstanding — because it tells the truth about America, where you cannot actually assume that you are safe with certain people. You cannot actually assume that someone does not have malintent, and you can’t actually assume that someone doesn’t actually have a murderous fear of you.

And that’s why she’s so powerful in the film, because even though she has lost her firstborn son, her only — her only son, she is still able to speak through that grief to a greater truth, which is, her child should not have been lost without his right to due process being violated. And these incomplete investigations, these slipshod investigations, are actually a violation of due process for the dead, because the investigations are the only thing that can speak for them. And by being able to talk about her entire experience, both critically and emotionally, my mother demonstrates that, you know, black and brown people are fully aware of the injustices with which we struggle and the structural failures that need to be addressed in our criminal justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip of your mom in Strong Island. This is Yance Ford’s mother speaking about the loss of her son William.

BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: I thought that I could comfort your father or/and that he would comfort me. But he turned his back. I will — over, over. And he couldn’t go any further. He couldn’t go any further. So I got up, and I walked around the bed, and I got in front of him. I just said, “It’s not your loss. It’s our loss. We, together, created this child God granted here to us for these years. You can’t grieve an issue that came from my body, and shut me out.” And we both cried. He embraced me, and we both cried. And that’s how we went to sleep.

AMY GOODMAN: Yance Ford, this is your mother in Strong Island. But in interviewing your mother, what did you learn about her that you didn’t know in all the years of living with her and knowing her?

YANCE FORD: You know, I learned so much about my mother throughout making this film. I think that one of the things, though — or the most important thing that I learned about her was that this thing — you know, this sort of demand from my parents that my brother, sister and I love each other no matter what. You know, they used to say, “We’re not going to be here someday. And when we’re gone, you guys are — you know, you are the only family you will have.” And the fact that she not only taught and instilled in us — and my father, as well — this notion of unconditional love, the fact that that love carried her through 20 years of grief, the love for my sister and I, you know, to find out that her love for my father began in the sixth grade and the fact that her love for my brother was as present in each interview as it was if he were still alive.

She was this amazing — she was this amazingly eloquent woman, who ultimately believed in the power of love to heal. But this was the one thing, this injustice, was the thing that love couldn’t actually heal. I think that she was glad to have the opportunity to speak her truth to power, but love wasn’t enough to repair the breach with our civil society. And seeing her disappointment and knowing how deeply it affected her, that was — it was a difficult thing. But also knowing that she was a woman who felt love deeply, and who was deeply loved, was an incredible thing to see and an incredible gift that, you know, she gave to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Yance, as we wrap up, you transitioned after making this documentary, and I was wondering if you can talk about that process.

YANCE FORD: You know, Amy, actually, my transition was in progress while I was making the film. And, you know, I had top surgery, I think, three years ago this month, actually. And I’ve always been gender-nonconforming. I identified as a butch lesbian when I was in my early twenties, even though I didn’t encounter the word “transgender” until 1995, when I met Minnie Bruce Pratt. So, you know, transitioning, sort of in my public — you know, in my private life, is something that had been — you know, had been ongoing.

And the tricky thing about making a film when you’re a character — right? — is that, like, you know, you can’t actually have your voice change in the middle of post-production, because I might need to record additional lines or re-record things. So, I didn’t begin hormones until after the picture was locked. But I had the — you know, the “there’s no turning back from here,” you know, as the medical establishment tries to make trans people go through these steps, just in case you change your mind. You know, that, for me, was the easy part.

And, you know, being the first trans director nominated for an Academy Award, having gone through a process with people who embraced me regardless of how I identified, with people who were able to turn on a dime and use the proper pronouns and respect my gender identity, even though it’s been something, you know, that’s not new to me, it’s not new to the people that I hold dear, but it’s sort of new in the public space, having that embraced and being respected by my creative team as that process played itself out was tremendously important, because that respect, you know, for both me as an artist and me as someone who is coming to a new understanding of how I wanted to be in the world — right? — which is my true self, my authentic self, and being that authentic self and being out as my authentic self, is so important.

And it’s one of the reasons why I’m so proud of Strong Island, because the film stands on its own and also allows, you know, it to go into communities where it might not otherwise go, because of who I am. Right? Like I know that trans people of color are murdered at such rates in this country every year. And it should be treated as a law enforcement priority, but it’s not. And, you know, if my nomination can help in any way to advance the issues of trans equality and protection for LGBTQ people under the law, then I am as humbled by that as I am by the nomination.

AMY GOODMAN: Yance Ford, I want to thank you so much for being with us.

YANCE FORD: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, congratulations for making history in different ways, because this documentary, Strong Island, is historic. Yance Ford, the first trans director to be nominated for an Academy Award, for his film, Strong Island. He has received many awards for it so far, his debut film, including the 2017 Special Jury Award for Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival. It was the most awarded documentary of 2017. And I want to thank Joslyn Barnes, who will stay with us, because Strong Island debuted last year here at the Sundance Film Festival; this year, another remarkable film, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, we’ll talk about that next with RaMell Ross and Joslyn Barnes. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Glory” by Common and John Legend, from the movie Selma. Common, who won an Oscar for that song two years ago, well, on Tuesday this week, he was nominated for another Oscar, for his song “Stand Up for Something” from the film Marshall, about Thurgood Marshall. We’ll air our interview with Common — I spoke to him in the midst of a snowstorm on Saturday at the Women’s March here in Park City, Utah — later in the week.