Director gives impassioned acceptance speech blasting justice system that allows 'fearful' whites to take black lives
Yance Ford's film Strong Island, the powerful story of his older brother's racially-charged killing in 1992, has claimed one of the top honors of this budding awards season.
It was named best documentary at the IFP Gotham Awards at a ceremony in New York Monday night, from a field that included Ex Libris: The New York Public Library directed by Fred Wiseman, Rat Film by Theo Anthony, Whose Streets? directed by Sabaah Folayan, and The Work directed by Jairus McLeary. Ford and producer Joslyn Barnes share the award.
The profound fear woven into our justice system makes a mockery of due process.
"To all of the doc nominees we are humbled to be in your presence and you are examples for us as we 'compete' and support one another," Ford said during his acceptance speech. "Thank you for doing the incredible work that you do."
The director spent almost a decade on the film, which reexamines the circumstances around the shooting that claimed the life of William Ford Jr., and the shattering impact of his death on the family.
Ford was killed after a dispute at an auto body shop in Long Island where he had a car being repaired. Weeks before the shooting, Ford had argued with a white employee, Mark Reilly, over the repair job. When he returned to collect the vehicle a verbal altercation ensued between Ford and Reilly. The latter retreated into a garage and when Ford followed, he immediately shot him dead. Ford was unarmed.
The film suggests detectives did a superficial investigation, believing Reilly was justified in shooting Ford out of fear. Prosecutors brought the case before a grand jury composed entirely of white people who failed to return any indictment.
Related: Yance Ford on his searing documentary Strong Island: 'Empathy is not the point here'
Ford does not absolve his brother from any responsibility in his own death, but questions the cultural and legal underpinnings of the case. In a society that treats black men as inherently dangerous and scary, white people are granted license to kill them in any conflict by asserting they feared for their lives. It is racial bias essentially elevated to a legal defense.
There is nothing exceptional about the family in Strong Island. Hard work did not spare this family from the unrelenting systemic violence that has stalked black Americans since the founding of this nation.
In Ford's acceptance speech, he made impassioned reference to these issues.
"There is nothing exceptional about the family in Strong Island. Hard work did not spare this family from the unrelenting systemic violence that has stalked black Americans since the founding of this nation," Ford told the audience. "They did not survive. My family did not survive. That destruction is what should be exceptional but it is not. In 1992 11,175 black men were murdered in the United States, but that number does not include my brother because his death was not a crime. In fact, it’s impossible to know how many other homicides are not included in that number. The profound fear woven into our justice system makes a mockery of due process. Explanations of 'I was afraid for my life' or 'I was afraid' are enough to have wiped countless numbers of people from FBI statistics. They are enough to wipe people from our lives.
"Uninterrograted fear combined with systemic racial bias mean that entire families disappear. There is a direct line through history on to which my brother falls. But he is like any young man on the streets of Gotham tonight. William Ford Jr. was never meant to survive. Look around this room and know that many people were never meant to survive. Strong Island reclaims one family’s narrative from history. And we hope to shatter this narrative for the future."
This is the full list of Gotham Award winners, as compiled by Deadline.com:
Call Me by Your Name
Luca Guadagnino, director; Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges, Rodrigo Teixeira, Marco Morabito, James Ivory, Howard Rosenman, producers (Sony Pictures Classics)
Yance Ford, director; Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes, producers (Netflix)
Jordan Peele, Get Out
James Franco in The Disaster Artist (A24)
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird (A24)
Breakthrough Series – Long Form
Atlanta, Donald Glover, creator; Donald Glover, Dianne McGunigle, Paul Simms, executive producers (FX Networks)
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award
Jordan Peele for Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Breakthrough Series – Short Form
The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, Nancy Andrews, creator (YouTube)
Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics)
Get Out, Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures)
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.