Film recommendation: Strong Island

Watch this topical documentary as we all reflect on racial injustice, families and the power of a strongly told story.

On top of a global pandemic, two issues are now dominating the news and internet, with worldwide Black Lives Matter protests and JK Rowling’s ill-conceived intervention in the debate around trans lives (a debate fostered mainly by cis white women). So what better film to watch this week – to think, reflect and learn – than Yance Ford’s documentary Strong Island on Netflix. Nominated for an Oscar in 2018, it is a film about racial (in)justice, made by a trans filmmaker.

William Ford Jr, the director’s older brother, was just 24 when he was murdered by a 19-year-old white man, Mark Reilly, after a petty argument in a garage. But Reilly walked free after minimal investigation. He escaped justice because his fear of William counted as reasonable defence in the minds of the all-white jury. This film, made over 10 years, tries to tell the full story, both personally and as part of a national movement.

Ford’s parents moved from the American South to New York in the 1960s to raise their family with more opportunities. Ford’s grandfather had died of an asthma attack because segregation laws kept him in the waiting room. But even in New York and its suburbs, race continued to play a part in the family’s life.

Ford speaks to his mother and sisters and to William’s friends, building a picture of the young man. But he also examines his own feelings of guilt and anger about his brother’s death, and regret that he never managed to open up to his brother about his own identity. He accepts the complexity and flaws of his family, and that he is clearly no dispassionate observer.

An excellent film that will make you think and care, about people and humanity, about institutional racism, and about the complicated roles we all play in our own families.

“Slow, slippery, and stinging, “Strong Island” is many more things: a necessary addendum to the Black Lives Matter protest, a multi-generational saga of potential snuffed out by institutional racism, an infuriating illustration of the perils of Northern housing segregation, and an elegiac coming-out story (centered on the queer director, who is now trans, though that’s not made clear by the film).”  Inkoo Kang, The Wrap


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