Award-winning Documentary Film Director Talks of Artistic—and Family—Duties

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April 12, 2019

Acclaimed director and the 2019 Hoffman Visiting Artist for Documentary Media, Yance Ford, screened his Emmy Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated documentary, Strong Island, in Annie Mae Swift Hall April 11. 

Strong Island, a Netflix documentary, focuses on the murder of Ford’s older brother on Long Island in 1992, the grand jury’s refusal to indict the white man who shot him, and the tragic repercussions for Ford’s family.

Ford said he made the movie to honor his brother’s legacy.

“My brother was truly here one day and gone the next, and the person he was had been completely rewritten,” Ford said, referring to the fact that detectives and prosecutors failed to truly see him as a victim, and instead too quickly sided with the white suspect who claimed self-defense. “If I didn’t make this film about my brother, then the truth about who he was would be lost to history.”

William Ford, Jr, just 24 at the time of his death, was known in their blue-collar Long Island community for being a loyal friend who helped strangers and was pursuing a career as a correctional officer.

Communication Studies and Radio/Television/Film assistant professor Aymar Jean Christian and RTVF associate professor Kyle Henry moderated the post-screening question-and-answer session, and Christian asked Ford how he avoided the “white gaze” in his film.

“It’s really interesting to make a film about a black family and not have a lot of white people in it,” Ford told the audience. “That’s the norm. The story is told by a white filmmaker about a black family or a black tragedy, and from my vantage point as a director, the gaze was always from the inside out. It was always sort of the camera began inside of the family, inside of the home… And we changed what was expected to a black gaze on a black family on a black experience, which eventually just becomes a family and an experience.”   

Ford, the first transgender director to be nominated for an Oscar, made the documentary over a 10-year span but said he’d do it all over again.

“I started with this film because I knew if I never got to make another movie, that this is the one I had to make and everything else would be what I wanted to make,” Ford said. “It’s the difference between what’s necessary and what’s wanted, what’s vital versus what’s fun. For as long as it took, for as much money as it took…in the end it was all worth it because I proved to myself—in a way that artists often need to prove to themselves that they’re artists—I proved that I was the artist I believed I could be.”

Deborah Shoola, ‘20 WCAS, attended the film screening and said hearing Ford speak helped her see the documentary in a new light.

“This is a story so often unheard and untold,” she told Ford during the question session as she asked him whether he thought more people had an obligation to tell their stories.

“I believe that at a time when there are national emergencies, it’s the obligation and duty of artists and filmmakers and rise to the task of telling the story and the stories—plural—of the national emergency, which is to say that there are some filmmakers who are equipped to tell stories about the violence being perpetrated against African-Americans, and there are others who probably shouldn’t,” he said. “But the folks who can I think should and I would love to see those folks paired with more resources.”   

The Hoffman Visiting Artist for Documentary Media is a short-term filmmaker residency funded by a generous gift from Jane Steiner Hoffman and Michael Hoffman. Past Hoffman Visiting Artists include Raoul Peck (2018), Kirsten Johnson (2017), and Frederick Wiseman (2016).

By Cara Lockwood