In the feature documentary Strong Island, director Yance Ford explores the 1992 murder of her brother, William. Ford recreates William's story primarily through interviews with her mother, sister and a couple of William's closest friends. The prosecuting attorney and other figures responsible for getting William's case to trial are notably less talkative.
Strong Island premiered quietly on Netflix last week after winning the Special Jury Prize for best documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film's central murder carries a potent political subtext about the black experience of the criminal justice system in America, but, more than that, this is a film about loss and irrepressible grief.
The details of the crime are straightforward enough. At 24, William Ford was the elder sibling to two younger sisters, in a family that was taught above all else to love and look after one another. When William, unarmed and unprovoking, is shot in the chest by a white man in a mechanic's garage, the family mourns the loss and then waits, and waits, for the judicial system to hold the killer accountable. Twenty-five years later, the wait has morphed into a tired, angry and hopeless resignation.
Ford takes her time laying out her brother's case. It often feels like we're wading through molasses on our way to the circumstances of his untimely death. I'll describe this cadence as mostly a good thing—the pace matches exactly the rhythms of a festering mourning—but as a cinematic experience, it can be a bit of a trial. Steel yourself in advance for a funereal experience and you'll be better emotionally prepared. The interviews with family members are set up simply, in a home whose meticulous clutter could be either organic or staged. In any case, it looks realistically lived in. The effect is both comforting and upsetting, and that's without mentioning Ford's eerily poetic narration, as when she repeats her mother's words: "This house is made of bones..."
Strong Island might qualify as true crime, but only by the flimsiest association: There's been a murder, and now the survivors have gathered to talk about it. I'm a big fan of murder on screen, but I mostly stick to the schlocky, poorly produced, TV pulp variety. It sound sick and wrong, but I use murder investigations as lullabies to help me fall asleep at night. There's little actual violence in these shows; they're mostly parades of talking heads speaking in hushed tones about their feelings. And more often than not in these stories, it's not the murder itself that intrigues. The tragedies are rooted in ordinary families, each with its own collection of dramas, neuroses and inner turmoil bubbling just under the surface—then murder comes to town. Like a pond disturbed by a rock, the ripples reverberate, and suddenly this ordinary family encompasses an event worth documenting. Everyday people are brought into focus by an uninvited, extraordinary thud.
Now, with this latest Netflix Original release, I can be prescriptive with my recommendation. Under normal circumstances, I still contend that the best way to consume cinema is trapped in a box in the dark with strangers. But because Strong Island's pace is so languid and tragic, this could be a film best consumed piece by piece, the way you read a few pages of a sad novel every night before bed.