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Yance Ford’s older brother William was killed in 1992, an unarmed African- American shot by a white man during an argument at a New York auto body shop on Long Island. The shooter claimed he’d feared for his life and was never even brought to trial. Ford’s parents passed away in the stressful aftermath.
It took 14 years for Yance Ford to begin making his documentary, Strong Island, and 10 years to complete it. The passage of time helped the first-time director come to grips with what makes the story more than just a deeply personal one — and gain the filmmaking skills to do it justice.
“I’m glad I didn’t make the film when I was a 20-year-old art student who had lost their brother,” Ford says. “When I first started working on it, I was a little bit stuck on the ‘what.’ The question is: Why did it happen? It’s not just one family taken apart. There’s a historical answer to why my brother was killed and the person who took his life got away with it.”
Ten years working at PBS on the documentary series POV helped Ford realize it was a story that could be told. “I worked at POV for five years before I told one person about my brother,” says Ford, who watched hundreds of documentaries a year, seeing not only techniques but also the payoffs of taking risks and pursuing a vision.
Strong Island‘s interviews with family and friends, including Ford’s heartbroken mother before she passed away, often were first time they talked about parts of the story. “There were no pre-interviews. I never told anybody what I would ask them in advance,” Ford says.
Ford himself speaks straight into the camera, “as if testifying.” In one riveting monologue, Ford admits holding on to personal guilt over what happened to William — as a desperate way of making it feel less random. William had telephoned Yance after acting tough in a prior confrontation at the same auto garage. Rather than snitching to their parents, Yance cheered William for not backing down and cherished the confidence they shared — then later wondered if that admiration encouraged William to go back there for the last time.
Ford has made history as the first openly transgendered man to direct an Oscar-nominated film. “My transition is new to the public, but it’s not new in my life,” Ford says. “It is related to the film, in that phone call from William. That’s the kind of call that you would make to your little brother. It’s not necessarily the kind of call you make to your little sister. I realized that he actually could see me. Even though neither of us had the word transgender in the 1990s, he saw me.”
A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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