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'Strong Island' Director Yance Ford Makes Oscars History


Finally today, we want to tell you about one more contender for an Oscar tonight. It's a documentary about the death of William Ford Jr.. Before you knew the name Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or the names of other unarmed black men and boys who've died violent deaths for which no one was held accountable, William Ford Jr., a teacher about to become a police officer, was killed after an altercation with a white employee at a car repair shop near his home on Long Island, N.Y. An all-white grand jury declined to charge him for shooting Ford. One factor being that Ford threatened to hit the man with a vacuum cleaner a month earlier. This was 1992. It took years, but eventually, Ford's sibling, Yance Ford, decided to tell that story and also the story of what his brother's death has meant to his family. Here's their mother describing the emptiness left by Williams' death.


BARBARA DUNMORE FORD: The house had a stillness unlike anything I've ever felt in my life. It was like all the sound left the world.

MARTIN: And filmmaker Yance Ford is with us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Yance, thanks so much for speaking with us.

YANCE FORD: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, I just want to say congratulations on the Oscar nomination. The film has been nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category. The award will be tonight. And I just have to say congratulations.

FORD: Thank you, Michel. It's an incredible honor to be nominated for an Oscar and a really unbelievable moment right now for me.

MARTIN: But I have to ask how you feel about that. On the one hand, this was such a quest for you to complete this. And yet, the feelings I'm just thinking must be very complicated.

FORD: Yeah. You know, that's the thing about this movie. Thankfully, I started making the film. And William had been dead for 15 years. So I wasn't making it when his death was fresh. And having made a film about what happened to him and what happened to my family has been tremendously rewarding, but it's also kept his death alive in ways for me that change on a daily basis. And the thing that makes it easier is the reaction of people and audiences to the film. And I think the Oscar nomination is a real affirmation for me of the power of the story.

MARTIN: One of the things that I and a lot of other people who've seen the film have noticed is that you tell the story and you try to trace the facts around the story in a way that a number of other historians and documentarians have retraced the steps of other tragic events, but you also focus on the effect that this had on your family. And you talk about the way your father and your sister kind of retreated into themselves. And it's very personal. In fact, even the camera is like very close in your own face when you're talking about the effect on you. I was wondering why you decided that that was such an important part of the story as well.

FORD: You know, I think that one of the reasons why it was important for me to show the effect on my sister, to show the fact that a year after my brother was killed, my father had the massive stroke that would take his life three years after that is to help people understand that there might be one person who's in the ground in the immediate aftermath of these shootings. But these shootings also change lives permanently. They take lives over the long run. They create in, you know, the black community, for example, a public health crisis. That's not just about gun violence, but it's also about the ripple effects of gun violence. So that's why the rest of my family plays such an important part in this story.

MARTIN: You don't interview Mark Riley in the film, the person who killed your brother. And it doesn't seem to suggest that you made any effort to contact him. Did you?

FORD: You know, I tried looking for him at the beginning of the process. And then I realized that I didn't need to talk to Mr. Riley in order to get his version of events. Because essentially, when you hear me talking to the detective about what happened on, you know, the night of the vacuum cleaner incident, it's as if he's reading from Mr. Riley's witness statement. He's not reading from investigator notes. He's not reading from something that would imply an attempt to find out information from all sides of this incident. And I realized that Riley is everywhere in this film because he got to write the narrative of the night that my brother died without ever being interrogated by the Suffolk County Police Department.

MARTIN: And what about the rest of the reaction from - I mean, as I mentioned, I mean, your brother's death came at a time when, you know, maybe it was a local story. This has now become a national story. This has now become something that is the subject of headlines across the country, these kinds of encounters where an unarmed black man, you know, is killed and no one's been held accountable for it. And this is something that a lot of people are talking about now. What other reaction are you getting?

FORD: You know, I'm really getting a reaction from people who realize that in the instance of my brother's case that past is prologue. You know, my brother was killed two weeks before the verdict in the Rodney King case. And the narrative of the scary black man or the angry black man who had to be subdued by deadly force is something that's much older than the Trayvon Martin case, something that is much older than the Rodney King case.

And, in fact, this specter of the black man who must be subdued by any means necessary is in one way as old as cinema, right? We see the first representation of a lurking dangerous black man in "Birth Of A Nation." And people who watch the film, when the lights come up, they sit there often in a stunned silence because they cannot believe how little has changed between 1992 and now.

MARTIN: Yance, before I have to let you go, one thing that has changed is, after your brother's death, you decided to come out as a transgender man. And also, I do want to mention that you are the first transgender director to receive an Oscar nomination. So congratulations on that, you know, as well. But what affect did your brother's death have on your decision to come out, or did it?

FORD: It both did and didn't. You know, there's that phone call in the film where my brother calls me to brag about that vacuum cleaner incident. And one of the things that, you know, is so special about that phone call to me is that it's the kind of phone call you would make to your little brother. And even though that phone call happened in 1992, and I didn't encounter the word transgender until 1995, the fact that he called me really spoke deeply to me about his recognition of who I was even though neither one of us could have articulated it at the time.

And so, you know, I've been out as transgender in my life for a very long time. I'd say to people it's not new, it's just new to you.


MARTIN: OK. Point taken.

FORD: But being the first transgender director nominated for an Oscar is huge because I think that trans kids and especially trans kids of color who'll see me and know that they will be OK and that they can be OK and that they can live their lives as their authentic selves. And my brother knew me as my authentic self even though we didn't have the language for it at the time.

MARTIN: That's Yance Ford. He's the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Strong Island." He was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Yance Ford, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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