On Sept. 15, Netflix dropped new documentary Strong Island, a film that examines the death of William Ford Jr. and his family’s struggle to navigate the judicial system that allowed his killer to walk free.
Ford was murdered in 1992 at the age of 24, when he returned to a Long Island auto-repair shop to pick up his girlfriend’s car. He was shot dead by Mark Reilly, a young white mechanic. Ford was unarmed.
Like cases we’ve seen recently, Reilly defended shooting Ford by claiming self-defense and “reasonable fear.” The same coded language we recognize today was used to describe Ford, who became a suspect in his own murder.
Speaking with ESSENCE, the film’s director and William’s brother, Yance Ford, discussed the issues his family faced after his brother’s death as they juggled grief and the racism ingrained in America’s judicial system.
In the documentary, which features Ford’s mother, Barbara Dunmore, and sister, Lauren, Mrs. Ford describes arriving at the crime scene, where it immediately becomes clear that the family will have to find answers on their own.
“We see in that moment, a pattern of control that is a part of policing black people,” Yance told ESSENCE. “Who knows if my mother might have been able to fly in the Medevac helicopter with my brother to the hospital if someone had had the decency to address her at the barricade. My mother had to stay at that barricade.”
Yance says his mother’s introduction at the crime scene, which was left out of the film, details how she introduced herself to police, “My name is Mrs. Ford, I’m told that my son has been shot. Where is my son?”, and was ignored.
“There is a pattern of withholding information, the possession and subsequent dispossession of the black body,” Yance added.
Ford’s mother passed away during the making of the film, but there is a moment in the documentary where she briefly reflects on how she could have prepared her son to handle the things Black men and women regularly encounter in the world.
It’s a conversation that parents often think about, how to address race in America and their child’s place in it all. But, in situations like this nothing can really prepare you.
William became a suspect in his own death, like Black men and women often do, with investigators claiming that Reilly acted in self-defense. And, it’s hard for Yance to understand how that could be possible.
“My brother was obese, according to the coroner,” Yance told ESSENCE. “He was short by average American standards at five feet eight inches tall, but if you listen to the way that the police officer, the detective rather, who investigated the case describes him, you just hear that he’s a big guy, right?”
“That Mark was intimidated. And it’s like, Mark was intimidated by a five feet eight tall obese black man who didn’t have a weapon in a situation where he didn’t know he [Mark] was there?”
Yance describes a visit his brother made to the auto-repair shop prior to his death, where William tries to put on a tough guy front by lifting a vacuum cleaner.
“He picks up the vacuum cleaner and before he’s able to throw it across the garage, he gets completely soaking wet with all of the garage water in the vacuum cleaner. So by the time this kind of Mr. Badass routine is over, William is sopping wet and has been a complete failure at going in and being Mr. Tough Guy.”
That situation took place on March 19, an interaction that Reilly would, a month later, tell investigators made him fear for his life.
“At the end of that first incident on March 19, that’s apparently the night that instilled this deadly fear of my brother into Mark Riley,” Yance said. “The questions that don’t get asked by the police or by the ADAs are the ones that are really sort of hovering in the film. Like, wait a minute, March 19 to April 7 and you didn’t call the police or go to the police or say anything to anyone about how this guy scared you to death? Or, file a complaint?
“Yet on April 7, you are able to say to a grand jury that this interaction on March 19 is why you shot William despite the fact that he was unarmed. Despite the fact that you were not a part of any conversations and he didn’t know that you were there[at the shop]. Despite the fact that, frankly, if you listened to the autopsy report in the film, he was not shot at close range. There’s no evidence of close range firing in the autopsy report.”
He added, “So, I don’t know exactly the distance Mark Riley was able to travel in the time that it took my brother to follow him and turn that corner, but he got shot pretty quickly when he turned that corner. And if the tables had been turned, if the roles had been reversed and William had introduced himself into a situation where he had not been involved and shot a white boy, pardon my vernacular, and then claimed self-defense, he would be in jail to this day.”
And, while at the center of Strong Island is a family reliving the worst moment of their lives, Yance strikes the perfect balance of exploring Black grief and examing injustice.
“I would hate for people to think that Strong Island is just about a family’s grief,” Yance told ESSENCE. “It is about a family’s grief, yes, but it is also an interrogation of our criminal justice system.”
“It is important for people to realize that when the autopsy report says that there’s no evidence of close-range firing, that that is a blow to this self-defense claim. When you hear from the coroner that the reality of my brother’s body, contrary to the way that he’s described, when I ask at the end of the film, “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” it’s not a rhetorical question.”
“If we don’t start remembering, if we don’t start insisting that the fear of the people who take other lives be scrutinized as much as we scrutinize the lives of the people who are dead and can’t speak for themselves, nothing is going to change” he added. “We can’t just accept ‘I was afraid’ as a reason for taking someone’s life because people are afraid of all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. It’s important that people understand that Strong Island is just as much about this claim of reasonable fear and our need to interrogate reasonable fear as it is about my family’s grief.”