Strong Island Screen 97 of 15 reviews

Strong Island

2017

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  • Yance Ford’s astonishing debut, Strong Island, is an intensely personal documentary that details the long shadow of his family’s grief.

  • Formal in its style, "Strong Island" has an urgency underlying every scene. The story is not as cut and dry as it seems. It may be the case that a little bit of distance might have helped the film, might have moved the focus just a little further back to get a more complete picture. There are questions that circle around themselves, endlessly, providing no broader outlook. However, by the same token, it is that very lack of objectivity that makes "Strong Island" the experience that it is.

  • It's enough of a true-crime project that you can expect a few late surprises, all of them devastating. But the film’s real anchors are the interviews and, in Ford’s case, first-person confessions, all of which feel like miniature studies of how people talk and behave in the midst of unresolved grief... The pain of Will’s death is very much present, still, and Strong Island—one of the best films of the year—is an attempt to harness it.

  • Yance Ford’s extraordinarily dramatic documentary is both personal and investigative... At the time that William was killed, Yance identified as a woman and hadn’t yet come out as queer; that aspect of his life plays a role in the story. Yance is more than a witness—he is a participant in the events of the film, and its elements of pain and guilt are reflected in his grief-stricken, self-interrogating artistry.

  • One of the most touching moments comes when Ford calls her partner after hearing vital information on her brother’s trial... Ford touches on her sexuality with a forward-looking lightness, reiterating in the post-screening Q&A that she wanted to stress that although her sexuality was something that she struggled with, her family did not. The film manages to detail the facts of the crime itself whilst also exploring the complexity of black familial relationships with a delicate touch.

  • Ford asks, in asking how a man’s fear could be deemed by the justice system to be more significant, ultimately more in need of protecting, than her brother’s life. Ford gives us little distance from their own fear, anger and regret, and the film is all the stronger for it.

  • A film that has been making waves since it’s premiere is Yance Ford’s intense, powerful and deeply confrontational Strong Island... Whilst all of this is effective, it is the creative inversions of the extant formula (which be spoilt by disclosure) that are most brilliant, moments of breakage that smoulder with anguish and intensity, and flip the perspective from Fords back onto the audience.

  • The procedural boilerplate of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line is used for Yance Ford’s chilling, atmospheric Strong Island, in which the director glances back to the murder of his brother in an attempt to uncover why the killer was acquitted without trial. The details of the case are fascinating in and of themselves, but Ford also offsets the investigative elements with a portrait of a family which fell to pieces on the back of this travesty of justice.

  • We often hear about the need for "closure," but when the very fact of systemic racism helps set a killer free, what would that closure even look like? And then, there is the question of how that racism, and the anger it provokes on a daily basis, may have been a factor in shaping William as a personality. In a manner unlike any documentary since Capturing the Friedmans, Strong Island continues to unfold with increasing layers of complexity over its running time.

  • Though stylistically opposed – Olshefski’s expansive sociopolitical saga brings to mind the urban panoramas of Steve James, while Ford’s more reflexive approach pulls from a distinctly personal strain of essayistic nonfiction – these two films [Quest and Strong Island] together sketch a powerful portrait of the modern African American experience.

  • The film combines a number of striking techniques to document director Yance Ford’s chronic grief over the unprosecuted murder of his brother William in 1992. Two devices are especially striking: an overhead shot of Ford holding and examining family photographs, and a chiaroscuro close-up of his face as he addresses the camera head-on, commanding viewers to take him at his word. These techniques, though superficially unusual, draw plainly on human experience.

  • William becomes present through anecdotes and Ford’s readings of his astonishingly poetic diaries. It is a portrait of a fairly typical young man – albeit one with a rare emotional maturity who offered sensitive support to his mother and sisters. Strong Island brings these nuances to life, and also outlines the racist law systems that relentlessly reduce individuals, particularly black men, to troublemakers.

  • What emerges is a very close, tender look at the Ford family. These are people who moved to the suburbs after the city started to get too dangerous, and wound up finding themselves less safe than ever before. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of their devastation after the loss of their eldest son.

  • In many ways, it is a formally conventional documentary. Yet, its elegance, and its horror, grows from the realization that the more the film works to piece together a narrative, the more it collapses in the absence of a logical ground at its center.

  • [The high points] help counterbalance the occasional [overreaches], such as in the one scene that tediously explains how grand juries work or the few too many scenes of generic praise for the late William Jr. from friends and family. Even for a filmmaker as thoughtful and pragmatic as Ford, the closeness to this material makes any idea of impartiality an impossibility. The good thing is, more often it's just that blinkered sense of moral certitude that gives Strong Island its power.

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