Yance Ford looks at an old photograph in “Strong Island,” his film about his brother’s murder. Courtesy Alan Jacobsen.

‘Strong Island’
Saturday May 6, 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 7, 1:45 p.m.
Clairidge Theater, 486 Bloomfield Ave.

“Emerging Black Voices” panel with Iyabo Boyd, Sabaaj Folayan and Yance Ford
Saturday, May 6, 1 p.m.
Cinema 505, 505 Bloomfield Ave.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Making “Strong Island” was a way for Yance Ford to process the murder of his brother, William Ford Jr.

It did not provide closure.

“Closure is something that folks have come up with to hedge against the fear of something terrible happening in their lives,” Ford said. “I’m interested in a level-headed examination of the issues behind this case, for the benefit of us all.”

Ford Jr. was killed by Mark Reilly in April 1992. William Ford Jr. was unarmed, but the grand jury did not return a “true bill,” the name for a bill of indictment when a grand jury decides there is sufficient evidence to justify a case being heard.

Reilly was never indicted.

Yance Ford (pronounced YAN’-see) does not spare himself, at one point realizing that some of his own words had an impact on his brother, which might have affected how others reacted to him.

“Strong Island” includes interviews with Ford’s mother, a camera tight on himself; interviews with friends, officers of the court and of the law; and Ford’s hand, accompanied by a voice-over, sorting through old photographs and talking about them. He also reads from his brother’s diary.

The film premiered at Sundance in January. It will have a theatrical release in the fall, and has been picked up by Netflix.
“Strong Island” is in the documentary feature competition in Montclair Film Festival, and inclusion in the Montclair Film Festival is part of a partnership with the American Black Film Festival. The big question Ford wanted to raise, he said, was the difference between reasonable and unreasonable fear. Reilly got away with killing Ford’s brother because a grand jury felt his fear for his life was reasonable.

“My brother was not killed by a police officer,” Ford said. “But the person who killed him was white. The narrative of the fear of black men, the fear of black men’s bodies being turned into weapons, needs to be deeply interrogated. What you consider reasonable fear and what the court or jury considers reasonable fear has to have deeper interrogation.”

His brother’s death is “a point in a line of American racialized murders in America, that in the film you see goes back in the family to 1944. In our culture it goes much farther back.” I needed to make the film so I could stop thinking of my brother as an anomaly and start educating and sharing the community story. You think in the suburbs this doesn’t happen.” Ford grew up on Long Island.

Transcripts of what happens in grand jury deliberations are secret, by law. Ford said,“I absolutely think witnesses need protection. But I do not think anyone can say nothing ever goes wrong, and we don’t need a system to check and see.”

His mother wonders, in the film, how a person on a grand jury can come back with an important decision when they are doing a crossword puzzle or reading a magazine.

She says, “I will die believing that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color. I will always believe that. Always.”

Ford didn’t attempt to interview Reilly. “I have no interest in him. He’s simply the spark that took my family on a 20-year string of consequences.”