Like its director, “Strong Island” contains multitudes. Yance Ford’s documentary made history when it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, marking the first time a film from an out transgender filmmaker received an Oscar nomination, and only the fifth nomination for a transgender person ever. The movie, which recounts Ford’s experiences in the aftermath of his brother’s murder, offers an excoriating look at the killing of a young black man at the hands of a white one, in addition to the American criminal justice system that failed him and his family at every turn. Deeply personal and expertly crafted, what begins as an investigation into a murder becomes a painstaking inquiry of grief, memory, and ultimately — identity.
Black, queer, and transgender: Ford stands at the intersection of America’s most marginalized groups — and he is so much more than the sum of his parts. Throughout the 10-year process of making “Strong Island,” Ford transformed painful personal tragedy into art as he inched towards the deeply personal decision to medically transition. “Strong Island” deals with masculinity, race, and class, but it is not directly about gender identity and queerness, at least not on the surface. Ford said he finds it “remarkable” when audiences miss that the most pivotal moment in the film, a phone call between Ford and his brother, is inextricably linked to his gender and feeling fully seen by William.
“If you listen to the phone call, that’s the kind of phone call that a 24-year-old guy would make to his younger brother, not to his younger sister,” Ford told IndieWire. “I want to encourage people to take a closer look at that moment, and what’s legible on my face as a character in this film, and then ask themselves if my trans identity at the end of watching ‘Strong Island’ is really a surprise.”
Both Ford and the film’s producer Joslyn Barnes use this word, “character,” to describe Ford’s presence in the film about his life. It’s yet another layer to the memories Ford unpacks in “Strong Island,” often challenging himself to go back and rephrase in his unflagging attempt to present the unadorned truth. “My character was going through a process of saying things that hadn’t ever been said before,” he said. In his interviews for the film, Ford stares directly into camera with a penetrating gaze, a placid demeanor masking layers of emotional pain. As he wills himself to describe the events as plainly as possible, he also wills the viewer to see past their assumptions of black and queer characters onscreen, and look at the human sitting in front of them.
“Black audiences see an entirely different thing, and queer audiences see an entirely different thing,” Ford said of the pivotal phone call. “There are some white gay audiences that don’t necessarily see that moment in the film or any of my gender non-conformity throughout ‘Strong Island.’ I’m made aware of the ways in which black characters are read on film, and the dimensionality that audiences have to acquire and have to really develop in order to see black characters as their whole selves… It is a reminder of how flattened black characters and queer characters have been in documentary film for so long.”
During the phone call, William boasts to Ford about an argument he had at the garage where he would ultimately be killed. At the time, they laugh about it, and Ford is proud that his brother confides in him. “It’s the intersection of this moment of being recognized for who Yance was, with this moment that he feels may have caused his brother’s death,” said Barnes, the film’s producer. “Of course, that’s not true, but that’s what he thinks. So he carries that around with him, and he’ll always carry that around with him.”
If you’re not looking for it, you might not see it. Such is the subtle brilliance of “Strong Island.” It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again and still see something different, much like memory itself.
As for the historic Oscar nomination, Ford is proud to be representing transgender people and black people, but he’s well aware of the way narratives play out. “I check a lot of boxes for other people, right? Hopefully my being out about my transition, verbally, will help some people maybe go back and see what was in front of their faces the entire time,” he said. “Hopefully, the humanity at the end will help people begin to see through what I think is just a profound lack of imagination. It would be easier for people to grasp that gender, sex, and sexual orientation are different things if we had as much imagination in real life as we do when we are making our movies.”