Yance Ford '94 speaks at Hamilton.

After nearly 24 years off the Hill, Yance Ford ’94 returned to campus on Sept. 24 to screen his critically acclaimed film Strong Island as part of this fall’s F.I.L.M. series. The film, which follows a 10-year investigation into the murder of Ford’s brother, unflinchingly challenges viewers’ assumptions of what it means to seek truth, and posits that some questions will always go unanswered.

The film received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival.

Remarkably, while there are certain themes and takeaways every viewer gets from Strong Island, other themes seamlessly reveal themselves to particular viewers. Most obviously, viewers who have experienced a similar loss will likely find the film and its raw expression of uncertainty as validation of their own experiences.

White viewers, especially those who grew up in relatively non-diverse communities, can expect their expectations and assumptions to be challenged as they sit face to face with extreme close-ups of Ford and other interviewees. As Ford explained, he employed these close-ups with one aim being to “bring you closer to a black person than you’ve ever been” and so the audience would feel as if Ford was speaking directly to them. 

On yet another level, the film is particularly relevant to college students, even those who have not experienced such a loss, as it engages with themes of self-exploration, the meaning of life, and what it means to take up space and be part of a community. As Ford explained, the film “started gestating while [he] was at Hamilton,” and indeed many of the film techniques that he employed in Strong Island had been first practiced in film classes at Hamilton.

Another technique that Ford employs is resting on particular frames in silence or near-silence for an extended period of time. While there is certainly some element of aesthetics motivating these choices, Ford also explained his underlying philosophy that “the longer you look at something, the more you see of it.” This philosophy not only plays out in the use of extended frames, but also in the narrative arc of the film as a continuous return to the crime scene, again demonstrating the extent to which this film simultaneously operates on multiple levels.

Ultimately, the film prompts viewers to question “what is reasonable fear” and is it the same for all persons? Ford does not think so. After the film, Ford responded to an audience question about whether it was better to raise black children to judge others by character, rather than color, as he and his siblings had been raised. In response, Ford explained, “African Americans are not allowed full human expression without unforeseen circumstances…. My brothers’ mistake was thinking that he could be an angry black man and get away with it.”

For those wanting to engage with the film’s frustrating uncertainty and beautiful rawness, Strong Island is available for streaming on Netflix.

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