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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Strong Island is a 2017 documentary chronicling the murder of the filmmaker's older brother in 1992 and the ensuing grief and racial injustice that devastated his family. Although it's the story of a young and upstanding African-American man shot and killed by a white teenage boy who is later acquitted of murder by an all-white grand jury, the movie takes great pains to place the killing in the broader context of deeply rooted institutional racism. However, the documentary primarily focuses on the long-term suffering a family experiences as they try to make sense of the senseless -- a facet, depth, and nuance rarely seen in the typical mass-media coverage of homicides, especially in the African-American community. As such, there are moments of raw and unflinching expressions of deep sorrow that could be too intense for some viewers. There's some cursing, including "f--k." There's a brief mention of the filmmaker sneaking into the room of his older brother and looking at his copies of Playboy and Forum, and how it led to the filmmaker's awakening to identify as "queer," which would later lead to coming out as a lesbian in college and a transgendered male years later. It's an unsettling, challenging, and deeply personal account of an incomprehensibly horrible incident -- an incident clearly shown not to be isolated, but a product of the racism of the past, and a harbinger of the more recent news stories of the shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men.
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What's the story?
In April 1992, William Ford, Jr., a 24-year-old African-American man from Long Island, New York, was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white man. The incident started when, weeks prior, Ford's car was totaled by the driver of a tow truck from the body shop the white man worked at. The driver of the tow truck offered to have the body shop repair the car free of charge in exchange for not calling the police. As the weeks went on and the vehicle wasn't repaired, and Ford's mother was roundly insulted by the 19-year-old when she went to the body shop to get some answers, Ford went to the body shop to confront the shop's employees. He arrived unarmed, words were exchanged, and even as the exchange wasn't described by eyewitnesses as being violent, Ford was shot and killed just the same. While Ford lay dying at the scene, the police immediately seemed predisposed to believing that Ford was somehow complicit and guilty in his own homicide, while the man who pulled the trigger was taken away from the scene in a limousine. Ford's parents and siblings, grieving the loss of their family member, were presented with the insult of racial injustice to make the senseless death even worse when an all-white grand jury refused to charge the shooter with homicide, believing it to be self-defense. STRONG ISLAND, a documentary made by Ford's younger brother, discusses the deep emotional scars his family suffered in the years after the incident, a suffering that led to a kind of disintegration of his hardworking suburban middle-class family. The documentary also places the incident in the broader context of the institutional racism of the Jim Crow-segregated South, as well as the institutional racism of the policy of real estate developers and city officials of the suburbs of Long Island "redlining" African-American families to segregated zones and neighborhoods.
Is it any good?
What makes Strong Island a truly unforgettable documentary is how it conveys the racism of America in both deeply historical and deeply personal terms. Instead of focusing exclusively on the central incident of the movie -- the racial injustice in the shooting death of filmmaker Yance Ford's older brother in 1992 -- Ford uses the personal history of his family and their experiences with the insidiousness of institutional racism in the broader context of what it means to be African-American in the United States. He explores how a hardworking middle-class family who played by the rules and instilled a strong sense of values in their children went through a profound loss compounded by justice not being served.
The personal anecdotes of family members and diary entries of Ford go far to humanize and provide a depth and nuance to a crime that TV, digital, and print media rarely bother showing, especially when it's an African-American man who was shot and killed. The emotional scars are still so clearly seen and felt, over two decades after the incident. And the relevance to today's sadly common news stories of unarmed African-American men shot and killed in cold blood is obvious. Strong Island forces audiences to acknowledge how the institutional racism that lies at the very core of America's birth and existence runs much deeper and penetrates much further into the very fabric of day-to-day existence than some want to believe.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about documentary films. How do documentary films such as this one delve deeper into current events, controversial topics, and incidents than the typical reportage of television, print, and digital media?
How did the story of the filmmaker's family help to reveal and heighten the core issues presented in the documentary?
What would have been lost if the documentary had focused exclusively on the murder and subsequent trial?
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