Justice for Injustice through Art
Yance Ford ’94 was a sophomore at Hamilton when his older brother was shot to death in April 1992. Ford rushed home to Central Islip, Long Island, to be with his shattered family, and when he resumed life on campus, he didn’t talk much about what had happened; he processed it through his art.
For one of his performance pieces, with the help of music major friends, Ford created a sound loop from a message his mother had left on an answering machine. As the reworked message played, Ford, wrapped in muslin in the corner of a big drawing studio, unwrapped himself in a diagonal on the floor.
For another piece he spent weeks dragging logs and branches to a vacant chunk of land beyond a row of fraternity houses to build a huge, Lincoln-Log style funeral pyre. The structure complete, he invited 10 or 15 people to join him as he doused it with gasoline and poured a line of gas extending from it. A friend stood by with a fire extinguisher and instructions to put Ford out first if anything went wrong.
“It was special effects,” he said, sounding like a filmmaker. “I dropped the match, and the line of gasoline went up, and then so did the pyre.”
That was his senior year, when art major Ford had a College fellowship to pursue an academic project of his own design. He explored the concept of refuge related to Buddhist meditation and as a place to go in the face of trauma and inevitable violence, or what felt like inevitable violence, Ford told a Hamilton audience when he visited campus in September.
The bare bones of his family’s trauma and violence are these: His brother, William Ford, Jr., 24, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a 19-year-old white man at a body shop when he went there to pick up a car he’d left for repairs. An all-white grand jury heard the case, found the circumstances to be self-defense, and declined to indict the shooter.
Roughly 25 years later comes Strong Island, a documentary about the shooting produced and directed by Ford. The film won a 2017 Sundance Film Festival award, among other accolades, was picked up by Netflix, and earned a tide of laudatory reviews, including from The New York Times and The New Yorker. Strong Island, which is slang for Long Island, has generated buzz as a potential Oscar nominee.
It took some 15 years for Ford to begin the movie and 10 more for him to complete it. “There are just some stories that need that time to unfold, and the patience as a filmmaker to let the story unfold is really something that is important, and that I’m glad that I used,” Ford said in an interview.
Strong Island is an intimate film, but it’s not personal, Ford said; too many other families of color have been through such loss and injustice.
If anything, I want the film to provoke a conversation that we have yet to have in this country, which is: Who gets to define reasonable fear? Reasonable Fear?
Strong Island is a beautifully photographed, heart-breaking film that puts viewers face-to-face with the Ford family’s grief and places the homicide and its aftermath within the context of this country’s continuing history of racial injustice. The movie makes a case that, as William’s parents believed, the police made their son the prime suspect in his own slaying even though he was unarmed. A month before the shooting, William had been in a confrontation at the shop.
“If anything, I want the film to provoke a conversation that we have yet to have in this country, which is: Who gets to define reasonable fear?
I think that it’s important when you watch Strong Island to understand that there are no rhetorical questions in the film, and the film is meant to challenge the audience, to question their perception, to question the source of their fear,” Ford said.
He’s a short, stocky man with a calm demeanor and straightforward answers to questions that touch any layer of the film, from cinematography to gender identity. In person and on film, Ford seems totally focused on getting across what needs to be said.
“Yance is very tenacious, very articulate, and very determined,” said Lou Getty, his friend and former art professor, mentor, and advisor at Hamilton. “I think when it comes right down to it — I don’t think Yance would necessarily agree with me — but I think Yance is a teacher. I think that he has the fortitude for clarity and the absolute desire to speak truth and clarity.”
To watch Ford speak in the film is to feel as though you can reach out and touch his cheek, that to break eye contact with him would be rude. His face fills the screen. The use of extreme close-up is unusual and effective, said Scott MacDonald, a film professor who invited Ford to campus. “The film is ‘in our face,’ but also literally in Yance’s face: He tells us the story of his brother’s death and confesses his involvement with it, as we interrogate his emotional state,” MacDonald said.
Ford told an audience gathered in Kirner-Johnson for a screening of the film that he and his cinematographer decided to use extreme close-up in part because Ford’s facial expression is often misinterpreted, and the close-up helps to register the emotion. Another reason: “For some folks, it’s also to bring you closer to a black person and a black face than you’ve ever been in your life,” Ford said.
Through interviews with his mother, sister, and his brother’s friends, among others, Ford lays out the circumstances and consequences of the death, working with next to no information from the criminal justice system. Grand jury testimony is secret, the case was sealed, and a district attorney’s office staffer who handled the case would not speak to Ford. A detective who worked the case did, telling Ford that the facts presented supported the grand jury conclusion that the shooting was in self-defense.
William’s friend, Kevin, was there the night the body shop worker shot William. Kevin tells Ford that his brother recognized the worker as the man who had previously cursed at his mother when she stopped to check on the car, and with that recognition, Kevin knew there would be a fight. He says he and William were outside the garage when they saw the worker walk a few feet out of the garage. William recognized him and walked toward him. The worker walked back into the garage, William went in after him, and Kevin immediately heard a pop that proved to be gunfire.
The death would crush the close-knit family, a trauma intensified because the shooting never went to trial.
‘Character and Not Color’
Ford’s mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford, was a teacher and high school principal who founded a school for women and girls at the Rikers Island jail. She and her husband, who became a transit authority motorman, moved to New York City to be away from the racism of the south.
After their third child was born, they sought safety and security for the family by buying a house in suburban Central Islip, a largely African-American community. They devoted themselves to their children’s wellbeing and came up with the tuition to send them to Catholic schools. When William was shot, he’d given college a try but was back living at home and applying to become a corrections officer. He’d worked as a teaching assistant at Rikers.
Ford’s interviews with his mother and sister for the film were the first time they had spoken about the death as a family, but Ford’s father’s voice is absent. He had a stroke a year after his son was killed and died before Ford made the film.
Dunmore Ford recalls in the film that when she testified to the grand jury, she saw a juror reading a book, another a magazine, and still others conversing. Her feeling was that they weren’t interested in what she had to say, that they saw her as just another black woman who hadn’t done her job in raising her child. Throughout the film, her observations are trenchant and devastating.
“I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did, because we’d always tried to teach you guys that you see character and not color. And many, many times, I wonder how I could be so wrong,” she says.
My brother’s mistake that night was thinking that he could be angry and black and actually not have his life at risk. He didn’t realize it.
After being drawn close into the family’s tragedy, it may come as a relief to hear Ford say that making the film wasn’t as difficult as some might think, given the length of time since William’s death. Friends and family willingly participated. Ford is proud of Strong Island and considers it a film he had a responsibility to make because of its national resonance, but he’s ready to move on. He’s in discussions about other feature films and episodic television.
“I have lots of ideas that I’ve had to put on the shelf, but I’m looking forward to sort of letting the rest of my creative ambitions loose into the world, because I think it will surprise and really continue to challenge and even entertain audiences,” he said. “I have a lot of plans for the next 10 years. And Strong Island is just the first of many.”
Ford discovered art Hamilton, and he discovered Hamilton when he boarded a bus at Port Authority with other prospective students bound for one of the College’s multicultural student weekends. When Ford saw the campus he fell in love, and Hamilton turned out to be a good place for him, even if it wasn’t always easy.
When Ford was on the Hill, Hamilton had few students of color, and few gay or lesbian students who were out. Ford is transgender, but when he was in College “transgender” was unknown vocabulary to him, and he came out on campus as a lesbian. William was killed about a week before Ford intended to discuss his sexuality with his family at home.
A high-achieving, ultra-involved high school student, Ford entered Hamilton thinking he would become a lawyer until he took an introductory drawing course with Getty. They both remember arguing about the self-portrait Ford drew. He refused to draw himself with hair, and Getty insisted the piece was not finished until he did. “I still have that self-portrait, and it’s bald,” Ford said. “And a year-and-a-half later so was I.”
He shaved his head for a performance piece unlike anything else happening on campus, even now. To prepare, Ford welded rebar into an organic, cylindrically shaped cage just large enough to hold himself. His rock-climbing, geology major friends helped him suspend the cage about seven feet from the ceiling in a public space in KJ. The next morning, clad in a white sheet, Ford climbed in with the help of a ladder. For seven hours or so, he stood silently, bare feet against metal bars.
When students and professors passing through from one part of their day to the next came upon the black person in the cage, Ford made eye contact but did not speak. And people freaked out. “People looked away, people looked at me, people were crying, people were making snide remarks. It was a range of responses,” he said.
“This Invisible World” wasn’t about his brother’s death. “I think that piece was largely about silence and the isolation of being a student of color on campus, which was a very different campus in 1994,” Ford said.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, at that time a professor in the Women’s Studies Department, has never seen as powerful a student performance before or since, and she wrote about it in her 2003 book Feminism Without Borders. Mohanty is now a distinguished professor in women’s and gender studies and a dean’s professor of the humanities at Syracuse University.
Mohanty recalls faculty and students of color in particular coming to sit with Ford so he wouldn’t be alone. She brought a class to see the piece, and then they discussed it together, students groping to make sense of what they’d seen.
“It’s like if you come smack against a wall, and you can’t avoid it, but you don’t really know why you’ve come smack against it. It was a performance that couldn’t be explained away. It was a performance that could not be purely intellectually analyzed,” she said. “And it was a performance that brought people, in their different ways I would say, face to fact with certain realities that many of us don’t want to see.”
Professor of Art Ella Gant, one of Ford’s advisors for the piece, said she’d always seen him as a student who was serious about the practice of art. “But for me, when I saw him do that performance, that’s when it came together,” Gant said. She knew then he was an artist with a clear vision of what he wanted to say.
In a scene toward the end of Strong Island, set at night outside the garage where William was shot, someone lies on the ground as Ford narrates his brother’s final moments. The figure on the ground is Ford.
“And that’s straight out of my performance practice. That’s straight out of my work with Lou Getty,” he said. “And then, of course, you obviously see the influence of photography in every frame of this film — the formal lens, the fixed gaze, the influence Ella Gant also had.”
Early on after Ford graduated from Hamilton, he worked at a variety of jobs in New York, meeting his partner when he worked at an HIV education center in Brooklyn. He became production coordinator at a television station — Ford has a talent for logistics and multitasking. And in 1996, he took a film production workshop at a nonprofit collaborative, where he learned to shoot a 16-millimeter camera and to edit film.
In the early 2000s, Ford got a job at POV, PBS’s showcase for documentary films. He worked there for a decade, accumulating awards and recognition. In 2006, four years into his time at POV, Ford was talking with a friend, colleague, and mentor about whether to apply for a job as a programmer with the Sundance Film Festival or to pursue “this other thing.” When she asked what thing, he told her he’d had a brother. The mentor had no idea about what had happened.
“And when I got to the end of telling her about it, and saying that I had been thinking about making a film for a long time, she was like, ‘What are you waiting for?’ And failing an answer to that question, I had no reason not to start on it,” Ford said.
When the end was in sight after years of work, of patching together funding, and of adjusting to a major and unexpected character development, Ford had a three-hour rough cut of the film in hand. Then he took a step back to ask himself two questions: Is this the film I want to make? and Who am I making this film for?
“And the answer was, ‘No,’ and the answer was, ‘Only a white audience,’” Ford said, describing that pivotal moment. “The film at that point did not have, when I watched it, it didn’t have room for people who might have experienced what my family went through. It wasn’t really speaking to those people as well.”
Huddling in Copenhagen with his producer, Joslyn Barnes, they spent four days and 25 hours watching the footage, emerging knowing what the film should be. It would take nine more months to make a completely new Strong Island.
The Hamilton audience was the first sizable group of students to which Ford showed the film, and the last question after the screening came from a young African-American man. He asked if Ford agreed with his mom’s regret for raising William to judge people by character and not color.
Ford’s answer began with “Yeah.”
His mother and father had been optimists, he told the students. But when his mother articulated her regret, she was articulating how she’d forgotten that African-Americans are not allowed a full expression of human emotion without unexpected consequences.
“My brother’s mistake that night was thinking that he could be angry and black and actually not have his life at risk. He didn’t realize it,” the filmmaker said, “So unfortunately I do agree with her.”