This is TV-MA because of dark content. While I don't particularly remember any foul language, I'm willing to be it is only because I was invested in the documentary itself enough to ignore any language. Based on the content, I'm fairly sure that there is some pretty intense language in here. In terms of visuals, that is fairly mild. These are people's experiences of the night where a family member was killed. The graphic nature comes from their accounts.
DIRECTOR: Yance Ford
I kind of feel like a scumbag even reviewing this. Yes, it is a film. Yes, I watched it. Yes, it is up for an Academy Award, which means many many people are actually reviewing it. But how do you evaluate how someone grieves? This movie is an elegy for William Ford, Jr. The filmmaker, Yance Ford, made this movie to bring attention to the death of her brother, a man who was forgotten not by those who knew him, but by the justice system. It is not a look into what makes a justice system succeed or fail. Rather, it is exclusively the tale of William Ford and the night of his death. It is odd having this on Netflix. It is odd that "True Crime" is actually considered a genre because there is something inherently morbid in it. I don't know if I've always thought that way, but Strong Island kind of makes me aware of that. The documentary isn't trying to solve a crime. It isn't a look at the investigation and trying to go deeper than the police originally did. Rather, this is about how justice was never even really considered for William Ford. That's something new in itself.
As I mentioned with Icarus, I hate reviewing documentaries because I feel like I have to give way too much background. The short version of the story is that William Ford, Jr., the older brother of the documentarian Yance Ford, was shot and killed during an argument with a guy who was supposed to be fixing his car. William Ford had had an argument with the guy previously, but was overall a pretty upstanding guy. He wanted to be a corrections officer. His mother was a high school principal for years and had started a program teaching inmates at Ryker's Island. From the point of view of his family, he was a pretty awesome guy. When Ford was shot with a rifle, it seemed like something was hushed up pretty quickly to prevent the guy who shot him getting into trouble. The Grand Jury found that no actual crime had been committed and the family went from living by the motto, "Judge a person by his character and not the color of his skin" to "White society failed my son." There is more to the movie and I recommend everyone watches it, but that is the short version that you need to understand before I start really getting into it. Yance Ford created something very intimate and personal here. His is Ford dealing with her pain. The greatest thing that Ford communicates with this film is that William's death was not just about William leaving the family, but how William's death ended the family in a way. Yance and her mother still have a relationship based on the many interviews with her mother, but it is evident that her mother became a different person after William's death.
William's death may have affected Yance's mother the most. Yance and her sister definitely feel the effects of William's death, but Yance's mother became someone else in fundamental philosophy. I applaud Yance Ford for simultaneously examining the life and death of William Ford, but for also looking at who her mother was before and after this tragedy. A look at Barbara Dunmore Ford, Yance's mother, is a fascinating tale of a woman who has worked for social justice her entire life. She married a man whom she loved more than life itself. They worked insane hours, sacrificing parts of themselves for their children and for the students under Barbara's care and she honestly seemed like a modern day saint. Yance Ford clearly has / had the utmost respect for her mother and seems to love this woman. She has an awareness of the sacrifice, something many children have a hard time wrapping their heads around. But that relationship is also very complex. These interviews with her mother, and this is my complete interpretation, seem like a conversation long necessary. I know that Yance Ford had to have much of the story that Barbara had to share, but the tone of the interview seems to be vulnerable. This conversation has probably happened in pieces before, but to sit down and go through the nitty gritty of the whole thing probably had to be rough / cathartic. I weep for Yance for the loss of her brother. It clearly has shaped the rest of her life. But I also weep for Barbara, a woman who has stayed strong for the sake of a decaying family and the lost innocence she received that night. I also weep for her husband, dead before the making of this documentary. There is a complex emotion that is captured in this movie. It is extremely vulnerable and I hesitate to talk about. When Barbara talks about her husband, William Ford, Sr., she has such love for this man while being so angry at him for things that are somewhat out of his control. She pities what he went through, but is also mad that he couldn't empathize with the rest of his family. William Ford, Sr. dealt with this pain by hiding from his family. A year later, he had a stroke. I can't help but think that it couldn't have been a coincidence. I have been angry at the dead for failing to live and that is a very complex experience to communicate effectively.
I have to be critical. I can't state enough that this movie is important to see. As a Catholic and as a human being, I am glad that I watched this because it is the celebration of a life lost too soon. But I do have to look at the filmmaking as well and the successes and failures within the story. Yance Ford does exactly what she needed to do. She made a movie for her and her family. She wanted people to know about William Ford, Jr. and that's exactly what she did. There is no kowtowing to a greater agenda. She isn't meeting the needs of a studio or trying to win an Academy Award. The only benefit of this Academy Award nomination is that more people will see her movie and, as such, will know about the death of her brother. But a movie trying to topple a system and a personal film have very different needs. The movie might be a bit too intimate. Most of the information about this story comes from her family members and William's best friend. While Yance Ford does eventually reach a police officer who will speak to her (the opening of the film involves Ford talking to an officer on the phone who refuses to comment on anything), this scene is very fleeting. The bulk of the film comes from her family and that leaves this story mostly untold. I know that this isn't a true crime film in the traditional sense of the term, but the movie does a lot to avoid the "warts and all" attitude that many documentaries need to have to be truly effective. They mention that William had a temper from time to time, but counter that immediately that he was not one to get into fights. I am going to recommend this movie in my Catholic News Agency column, and I am terrified that this is going to become political because Ford leaves so many open questions about Ford's background. I respect her choice because one movie isn't another movie. She's not making a movie about proving her brother innocent. She is making a movie about her brother whom she knows is innocent. I can just see people flocking to political agendas because of this vulnerability. I just want people to watch the movie with Yance Ford's motivation. I want people to know that this isn't about politics, but rather about knowing a kid who was shot. As part of that, Yance Ford introduces a conspiracy that never gets traction. There are flaws with the format, but flaws that I might intentionally make. Perhaps the most problematic is the fact that many of the gaps are filled in by the filmmaker herself. She often films herself talking to the camera. This is her story as much as it is anyone else's and she needs her voice to be heard. But that also pads out a movie with (God, I'm a jerk) somewhat manipulative moments when needed. I get it, but also I wish that she handed the camera to someone who wasn't involved. Her interviews are vital, but she also keeps coming back and that hampers the objectivity. But I can't stop saying this...this movie isn't meant to be objective and we should all just move on. It's just that I couldn't stop thinking about it.
I don't know if I want to think of this as an Academy Award nominee. I want to think of it as me getting to know a family that has been ignored for too long. I am saddened for the Ford family and I know that this pain will never go away. But bringing William Ford's death to the forefront is an important step in the healing process and I hope this brings some sort of justice to future generations.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.