The shooting death of William Ford, a 24-year-old schoolteacher from Central Islip, is the focus of “Strong Island,” an emotionally charged documentary made by one of Ford’s younger siblings.
In April 1992, Ford went to Super Stang, a local auto-body shop, and got into an argument with the owner that stemmed from a recent repair to a car belonging to Ford’s girlfriend. Though unarmed, Ford was shot to death by an employee, Mark Reilly, with a .22-caliber rifle, according to Suffolk police. Reilly was charged with manslaughter but claimed self-defense, noting that an angry Ford had been to the garage once before and had allegedly thrown a vacuum cleaner. A grand jury declined to indict Reilly, and the case files remain sealed.
The reason for the dismissal, according to filmmaker Yance Ford, is that William Ford was African-American and Reilly was white — and so was the grand jury. It’s a conclusion that may strike some as a “typical liberal agenda,” Ford acknowledges in a recent interview, but he adds, “Suspend your belief that you already know this story. Because you don’t.”
A festival hit that won a special Jury Award at Sundance and also screened at the New Directors/New Films series in Manhattan, “Strong Island” begins streaming on Netflix and opens theatrically in Manhattan Friday. It arrives at a moment of renewed tensions over race and racism in America, but Ford’s film isn’t a journalistic exposé of a flawed legal system or an attempt to retry a particular case. “Strong Island” is a first-person account of a tragic death, a grieving family and their sense that justice not been done.
“I can’t help but ask the litmus test question,” Ford said in a recent interview. “If the roles were reversed, where would my brother be today? If your answer is jail, or parole, then there’s only one way to explain it.”
Ford, 45, whose résumé includes 10 years as a producer at the PBS documentary showcase “POV,” describes himself as a product of the tail end of the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. Ford’s mother, Barbara, grew up in South Carolina and recalls teaching her own mother, a tobacco-crop worker, how to read; her father, an asthmatic, waited so long for treatment in a segregated hospital that he died there. Determined to improve their lives, Ford’s parents moved to Brooklyn in the 1960s and then, in 1972, claimed their share of the American dream by purchasing a home in Central Islip.
“Most of the people who left the South during the Great Migration went from the South to the city — and their kids would go from the city to the suburbs,” Ford says. He adds with some pride, “My folks went South-city-suburbs in one fell swoop.”
‘They didn’t care’
Nevertheless, “Strong Island” makes the case that segregation and racism existed in Long Island, too. In the wake of his brother’s death, Ford says his family was harassed by unexplained phone calls at night and followed home by unidentified cars. Barbara Ford describes testifying before an all-white grand jury that, she said, seemed uninterested in her story.
“How could you come to a viable decision if you’re reading a magazine?” she says in the film. “I will die believing that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color. I will always believe that.”
As for Reilly, Ford was unable to find him, even with the help of a private investigator. “But I stopped and asked myself, why am I doing this?” Ford says. “Mark Reilly already said everything he had to say to me when he shot and killed my brother.”
Ford titled “Strong Island” after a hip-hop term for the region that was popularized in the 1990s by the local rap group Public Enemy. Although the title evokes both the time and place of his brother’s death, Ford says it’s also his attempt to grab the attention of a younger generation. “This is something you’re going to be interested in,” Ford says. “Something that actually does concern you, and your life.”