When his film “Strong Island” earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature in January, filmmaker Yance Ford made history. As he watched the announcement on television, Ford, born and raised in Central Islip, became the first openly transgender director nominated for an Academy Award.
“Strong Island,” however, has almost nothing to do with gender and everything to do with color. In the film, Ford, who is African-American, tells the story of his older brother, William Ford Jr., who in 1992 was fatally shot by a white auto mechanic, Mark Reilly, just a few blocks from the Ford family’s home. Although William was unarmed, Reilly claimed self-defense, and a grand jury declined to send the case to trial. In “Strong Island” — the title comes from a hip-hop nickname for Long Island — Yance Ford asks difficult questions about his brother’s case, and about racism in the American justice system. (The movie is now being streamed on Netflix.)
Today, Ford finds himself playing two different roles: The keeper of his brother’s legacy, and a public face of gender identity. Reached by phone at his home in Queens recently, Ford spoke about his original mission as a filmmaker, his newfound celebrity and staying grounded even as an Academy Award dangles in front of him. “I think it’s safe to say I’m pretty much the same Yance as I was 10 years ago, except I’ve updated my wardrobe a bit,” he says. “Essentially, I stopped buying my jeans from Old Navy and started buying them from somewhere else.”
The following is an edited and condensed version of Ford’s interview.
What does this nomination mean to you as a filmmaker and as a person?
I don’t assume that I’m ever going to pass this way again; it’s a tough thing to get nominated for an Oscar. I’m really glad the work as a whole is being recognized for what it is, and it’s the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of talented people. If you asked me where I thought this film would end up 10, 12, 15 years ago, I would not have said an Academy Award nomination. I was really just setting out to fulfill a very personal obligation to not let my brother’s story vanish.
Given some of the other nomination milestones for women and African-Americans, do you feel that the Oscars are changing?
My impression is that the Academy is really sincere about moving toward a more inclusive and representative Hollywood. I’m certainly proud to be the first openly transgender director [to be nominated]. That’s something I can do, to help people understand that trans folks are your family, your friends, your neighbors. We’re not just like you. But we’re not so alien that we need to be excised from our society.
So, where do you buy your jeans from?
Zohreh, in midtown, on 54th Street. When I went there for my first handmade suit, Sean [Vokshoor, the proprietor] did not bat an eyelash. He saw someone who needed a well-tailored men’s suit, and that was it. And Sean and his staff have made me look really good since last year! I went to his shop two days after the nomination. They had a bottle of Champagne for us, and they started taking measurements for my tux.
Has the publicity around your film led to any new developments in your brother’s case?
No. And frankly, I didn’t expect it to. The point was never to get his case reopened. The point was to show that dysfunction in the criminal justice system can actually look very benign. It doesn’t have to always look like the things that get the most press. It’s the ordinary things that, when taken as a whole, equal systemic injustice. It’s not just mass incarceration, it’s not just bail reform, it’s not just reminding DA’s about the standards of reasonable fear — it’s all of these thing taken together. I hope the film really pushes people to ask themselves questions that they wouldn’t otherwise ask about the way the entire system works.