In all its glory, Strong Island is as intimate as documentaries get. The entire feature is a personal journey for the filmmaker, who has had to endure years of pain because of their brother’s death, which has received no justice at all despite the seemingly obvious murder. Strong Island opens up with the mother delivering a long monologue which could touch most emotional boundaries. I was initially taken aback. Many documentaries have an emotional outlet from someone, but this speech delivers something more raw than usual. I could feel the pain.
Pain is what the documentary relies on. Yance Ford, the filmmaker, is the brother of William Ford Jr., who unfortunately ends up in a deadly altercation with white mechanic Mark Reilly. The documentary makes it known that William was merely defending his family’s name when the altercation happened, and insults were not necessary for shooting him with a weapon. Mark Reilly is not sentenced for the murder of course, which provides the entire point of this documentary.
Ford wants to make the audience aware of how the case impacted the family. Ford is the main face for most of this documentary, with honest, straight to the point statements. There are many shots where emotions burst full flow that add an element of genuineness to the feature. From the perspective of the family, they were extremely let down by the legal system. Strong Island proves that cases like this can have a negative and mental impact.
Much of the documentary leans on the fact that their murdered family member was disadvantaged in court because of the colour of their skin, and it is a point that is fully agreed on, but what is important is the hurt that is felt by the system against them. You witness the mother going through the many motions as the documentary progresses. Learning about the jury and the investigation further causes the pain in the long term.
Despite its intimacy and beautiful effort by the filmmaker, the documentary in the end only proves the pain caused by perceived injustices and contained discrimination. Which is fine, and I came to realize by its conclusion the sole goal. Unfortunately, for me, without instilled evidence, it fell a little short to deliver. I completely understood that the family felt aggrieved, and with that, I felt compelled to feel for them, but from a documentary standpoint, it needed some evidential backing to deliver its objective. Although, at the same time, I know the counter-argument will be that the objective was to show raw emotion and demonstrate an achingly personal journey for the filmmaker, that, to me, is all it becomes.
I think most know that discrimination is present in the justice system with the countless documentaries out there. Strong Island delivers its objectives, an obviously personal and painful envelope inside the filmmaker and the family’s world, but unfortunately, for me, that is all it was, so it did not fascinate me on the levels I was expecting.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.