“All for one, one for all,” the dashing motto of The Three Musketeers, is almost as well known as the devise of the French Republic itself: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Less well known is that Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the classic tale of swordplay, camaraderie, and France’s wars of religion, was black—the grandson of a Haitian former slave, who in his day rose through the ranks to become a decorated French general with 50,000 (white) soldiers under his command.
Black men and women like Dumas have been an integral part of Europe for centuries: DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed that the first Britons had “dark to black” skin, evidence of the Black presence in Europe from the middle ages onwards is available in coats of arms for towns throughout the continent, and variations of Moorish names have been been found as far flung as Scotland, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Belgium. Joining Dumas in crafting irreplaceable contributions to modern European culture are such people of colour as German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (1700-1775), and English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
This rich history, however, has often been swept under républicain-coloured rugs (or colour-blind rugs, as it may be); Dumas is rarely viewed as a black French writer rather than just as a French writer. On the other side of the Atlantic, the struggles, triumphs, and continued strife of the African American community has coalesced together into a narrative history that has become a global story, and not merely a national one. Over the course of centuries, black American identity has become fierce, and fiercely present. But what of black European identity? Do black Europeans exist in a better social and political landscape than their American counterparts?
Caught between the tug and pull of multiculturalism and state policies of official social and political colour-blindness, is there a tangibility to black Europeanness? And perhaps more importantly, has their struggle and their context given way to a fate that is better or worse than that of black Americans, an ocean away still shouting to the world that their lives also matter?
At the beginning of the 21st century, a population reportsuggested that both the US and Europe were on the brink of major demographic changes: the majority white population was giving way to more mixed groups of people as a result of continued global migration patterns. The report, published the same year that Princess Angela of Liechtenstein became the first person of known African origin to marry into a reigning European royal family.
Eighteen years later, following the highly televised British royal wedding of Prince Harry to the African American actress Meghan Markle, commentators seized on the notion that Britain, and by extension Europe, had become post-racial. Simultaneously, the German company Super Dickmann chose the royal wedding day to post an image of a chocolate marshmallow bride, later apologizing for the arguably racist image known as the NegerKuss, or “Negro Kiss.”
“…the marriage had made the Royal Family more symbolically relatable to a multi-ethnic Britain—but Britain today needs more than symbolism.”
That royal wedding succeeded in highlighting the racism and class divisions that exist in ‘polite’ British society, where people generally feel uncomfortable talking directly about ‘race’ and would rather allude to the subject than have a straightforward conversation. In its aftermath, various British media commentators noted that the marriage had made the Royal Family more symbolically relatable to a multi-ethnic Britain—but Britain today needs more than symbolism. Though perhaps to a lesser extent than the United States, the United Kingdom has for years embraced an official policy of multiculturalism; an embrace of multiple cultures and identities underneath the Union Jack. Whereas just 32% of ethnic minorities describe themselves as “English” (in contrast with 61% of whites), two-thirds of minorities in the UK proudly label themselves “British.”
High profile unions like the British royal wedding may seem to suggest a change in the climate of racial equality, but multiculturalism as a matter of European public policy has been controversial and far from conclusive. In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that as a concept, multiculturalism had “failed,” a year later, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched a ‘war’ on multiculturalism, and in countries like France, the idea of identity communities within the broader nation has never held much sway at all, being viewed rather as divisive and unproductive, and where even collecting statistics based on ethnicity has been illegal since 1983.
While in Northern Europe, blackness is frequently exoticised in an almost naive sort of way, in Southern Europe, black people are regularly categorised as migrants, refugees and undesirables. When a photo of American actor Samuel L. Jackson and basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson was purposely misidentified as migrants and subsequently shared as a social experiment, it was cited by far-right populist supporters who were quick to identify them as “lazy migrants” on a shopping spree with money from the state. Opponents of Italy’s ‘open migration policy’ were quick to condemn the two men, whose blackness overrode their individuality, relegating them to the status of unwelcome and unwanted refugees.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported that 2016 was “a banner year for hate,” and cited the election of Donald Trump as one of the typical reasons for that description, because it corresponded with the increase in reports of hate crimes—the largest increase, 197 per cent, was of anti-Muslim hate groups, which increased from 34 in 2015, to 101 in 2016.
Of course, Islamophobia has not been the only rising prejudice in the United States. Even before Trump announced his candidacy, a series of videotaped, high-profile police shootings of (most often) young black men thrust race back into the national conversation. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose treatise on race in America, in 2015 when accepting a National Book Awards prize for the best nonfiction book—his treatise of America’s race problem: Between the World and Me—stated that at “the heart of our country is the notion that we are O.K. with the presumption that black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition to criminality.”
Like Eric Garner, who could not breathe; Tamir Rice, all of 12 years old; Eric Harris, who after he was shot, was told, “Fuck your breath,”; Philando Castile, a concealed-carry permit holder about whom the NRA remained strikingly silent; Terence Crutcher, unarmed and with his hands up. The list could go on.
It is because of this perceived American systemic racism that the country continues to face renewed scrutiny under the spotlight of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and thehighly visible NFL protests, which began when Colin Kaepernick-led protests, where Colin Kaepernick, the a now ex-professional American football player, took a knee along side his team mate Eric Reid during the national anthem (sung before every professional sports match), to protest the police killings.
“The NFL players follow in a proud tradition of silent protest.”
Their on-the-field-speech swiftly drew the ire of Trump’s Twitter fingers, who denounced the protests as un-American—a type of unequivocal judgement he has been loathe to levy upon the alt-right. The NFL players, of course, follow in a proud tradition of silent protest the likes of which has been deployed since the era of the Civil Rights movement.
The silent “voices” of Kaepernick and the tens of thousands of others who have knelt and marched remain necessary for reasons far and beyond the systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system: the United States, the most unequal wealthy nation in the world, is even more so for black and brown people. Median wealth for white households is $171,000. For black households, it’s just $17,600. And the gap is growing.
In the face of that stark inequality, Trump’s presidency has embodied white supremacy – through his close links with Stephen Bannon, the KKK, and right wing populism. Trump has legitimised public hatred towards minorities and people of colour from the highest office in the country. And whatever its origins, the American alt-right has set its sights on making common cause with its European brethren. Once exiled from the White House, Bannon turned his sights on the far right wing parties of Europe, like those led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Germany’s Alice Weidel. He has advised them all to wear “to wear assertions they are ‘racist’ as a “badge of honour.”
Indeed, the common cause made between the far-right in the United States and in Europe threatens people of colour on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Europe, extremist parties have seen their average vote share rise from 5% of the vote in 1997 to 16% in 2017. In the United States, white nationalism has a political ally in none other than the Oval Office itself.
Curated and written by a team of eight Writers-In-Residence, working at the new Francis Ewe’s Publishing House On Seel Street as part of Independents Biennial 2018, a temporary reading room will lay the ground works for an original anthology of writing produced by eight diverse and boundary blurring writers.
Between 20 August – 6 September 2018, Tate Exchange welcomes visitors to take a break and discover new ways of writing.
The writers have been granted a residency over 3.5 months in Seel Street, and free reign over Independents Biennial venues and artists to build new stories, soundscapes and ideas. At the mid-point of the festival their work is open to critique, addition and exchange with the public.
Independents Biennial 2018 is curated by Art in Liverpool and spans five boroughs of the Liverpool City Region. Find the full festival listings, including four public trails and four major new commissions here.
As part of the Reading Room Residency at Tate, Liverpool, I had my writing displayed and an audio drama, Daddy’s Boy, installed in Tate Exchange; I also organised and facilitated a creative writing workshop, and assisted in the curation of the Tate, Liverpool Reading Room.
20 August 2018
Update March 2019 – Book launch and publication
The Writers-in-Residence for the Independents Biennial 2018 have had our work
Since the 15th century – in the Americas and the colonised world – the Black female body has been seen as a product to be used to produce more products in the same image; this has some parallels with the Black African tradition where the Black female body was viewed as a source of social success and family wealth, the commonality between these two views is patriarchy.
Objectification of the Black female body renders the black woman a commodity that others can enact their will upon, e.g. rage, lust, anger, disgust, desire.Therefore Black women need to regain control of the image that they project of their own bodies. Beyoncé is one Black woman who appears to be controlling the representation and reflection of her concept of the Black female body.
Black female bodies have historically had repeated collisions with masculinity, power, and whiteness; these bodies constantly exhibit strength beyond the imposed theories as they continue to disrupt the masculine narrative of superiority, because without them Black life does not continue.
When Black bodies were viewed as products they were also categorised as sexual and economic property where the sexuality and reproduction were strictly controlled; in this manner they are systematically dehumanised and positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. A prime example of this occurred in 1814 when Sara (aka Sarah or Saartjie) Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was displayed in a cage, and objectified as a deviant savage who was an inferior being. Baartman was described has having “abnormal sexuality and genitalia”.
Sara Baartman was in fact a Khoikhoi woman – an aboriginal South African – who became a domestic servant to Dutch coloniser Pieter Willem Cezar in Cape Town, South Africa, before she was employed by English ship surgeon William Dunlop and Cezar’s brother Hendrik.
Apparently Sara Baartman signed a contract on 29 October 1810 with the terms stipulating that she would be a domestic servant in England and Ireland for Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar in addition to being exhibited for entertainment purposes. The contract allegedly stated that Baartman would receive a portion of the earnings and would also be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. However, after four years in England Baartman was sold to Reaux, a showman in France, who showcased her alongside his animals.
Baartman died in France in 1815 after being exhibited and studied as a science specimen by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Baartman was used to emphasise the theory that Black Africans were hyper sexual and less human than Europeans. It was through this initial commodification process that black bodies were positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. As Iman Cooper (2015) says essentially “the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners.”
Baartman is symbolic because her Black African female body was used as imagery to represent, reflect and affect the nascent European held opinions of ‘savage sexuality and racial inferiority’ of the time. The physical presence of Black bodies in the world is undeniable, however the concept of racism made the power and self-agency of those bodies incomprehensible and refutable in the eyes of white colonisers, but the black body has always remained self-defining and disruptive to global theories of cultural being.
This originally European social conceptualisation of the black body has remained widely unchallenged by mainstream society, especially in media outlets that are controlled by heteronormative white men. Therein femininity is also codified as Christian, white, docile, chase and pure, while Black women’s religious characteristics are not viewed in the same way as their white counterparts they have historically been viewed as uncontrolled, loud, wild, lewd and evil. Both black and white female bodies have been regulated according to the diametrically opposed assumptions held about each other, largely based on the overriding global standard rooted in racism.
Black women performers like Beyoncé often use their bodies as a means to reclaim and contest the control of the image of the Black female body from their personal perspective: powerful, sexual, self-regulating.
Who is right, Beyoncé or bell hooks? Can’t they both be correct? Black women have a right to control their own image and decide on the sexualisation of their individual bodies – that is their agency and feminist right of self determination.
Bodies will always be sexualised and objectified by the gaze of the ‘other’ be it the gaze of a man or another woman (Black or white). Therefore Black women are justified in deciding their own degree of visual sexualisation according to the pervading and overarching social mores, nevertheless I do not believe sexualisation can be ignored or viewed in isolation without considering the history of objectification and sexualisation of the female body, specifically the Black female body.
As Nora Chipaumire suggested in 2014, the Black female body can acknowledge her own power and presence, and negotiate the way others look at it or see it in her own way, on her own terms.
Black female bodies are engaging in the freedom of expression as their own subjects, they are no longer mere objects.
“The Virgin Suicides” film is a feast of watchers: it confirms that we are all watched and we all watch. Like George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” this film reminds the viewer that we are all under constant surveillance.
Sofia Coppola directs her own screenplay adaptation of the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides from behind the director’s lens, and she uses immense finesse to craft this voyeuristic piece of art that portrays the moral and social decay of a 1970s American neighbourhood. This modernist metadrama observes the theatre of people of all ages closely scrutinising each other; with this approach, Coppola destroys the illusion of reality and demands the critical involvement of the neighbourhood boys (as narrators), and the audience (as spectators) to the whole performance.
The film is ostensibly about the suicides of five teenage sisters, yet death is not purely physical or limited to the siblings. The parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, both lose their dreams of the perfect suburban family life, and stability of employment and home when the sequential demise of their daughters impact their lives like falling dominoes.
Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) is the primary, often overlooked, watcher in this film; she is always on guard against the invasion of uncontrolled life and the influence of the outside community into her fortress home. Mrs. Lisbon uses religion, clothing, and even the physical positioning of her body to shield her family—especially the girls—against the pervading influences of the external environment.
To Mrs. Lisbon, the only safety is to be found in the house where she can monitor the family from close quarters. However, Mrs. Lisbon’s concrete belief in the security of the home is shattered when Cecilia uses the house as a springboard and a landing mat for her own death. This death is the start of the “poison in the air” that invades the entire neighbourhood.
Ronald Lisbon (James Wood) watches and reacts from behind his wife; he is an outsider in his own home, and he sits in the corner of the room while his female family members appear to freely occupy the rest of the house. When other men, such as Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) and the family familiar priest (Scott Glenn), come into the living room of the house, they occupy the outer edges of the designated female portion of the space.
Trip Fontaine is uncomfortably placed in a corner of a sofa and physically blocked from looking at Lux (Kirsten Dunst) by Mrs. Lisbon who observes the movements of all her girls while they are under the gaze of any young male interloper. In contrast, the priest is granted freedom to wander through the house looking for the female occupants without a chaperone—his male gaze has been muted to neutrality by the cloak of religion.
The devastating concept of loss is also experienced by the neighbourhood boys who watch and occasionally socialise with the Lisbon sisters. They are unsuspecting witnesses to the first death, and later they recall the history of their experiences from the prism of adulthood. As grown men, they admit that they have been “scarred forever” with the memories of the past “making us happier with dreams than wives.” Their gaze is subjective because of their distance and their gender.
The five siblings are viewed and treated like raffle prizes; the boys discuss which one they will “win.” The Lisbon girls’ separate identities are shown at the beginning of the film, however, with the exception of Lux, the other siblings behave the same way and look the same with their repeated blond personas. The film projects an overriding white and middle-class sense of perfection that is slowly destroyed.
Despite many whispers and intense speculation, the popular blame for the pervading community decay is firmly placed with the foreign “other” personified by “the immigrant kid” Dominic Palazzolo (Joe Dinicol). Palazzolo is portrayed as both ungodly and worldly because he is quickly captured by uncontrollable passion for Diana Porter—another blond teenage girl in the vicinity—who goes to Switzerland on vacation leaving Palazzolo so bereft that he denounces God and jumps off the roof of his relative’s house as a demonstration of the validity of his love. This mature uninhibited behaviour is viewed as the trigger that sparks the desire to die in Cecilia and her sisters. This causes the main group of male teenage observers to conclude: “We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death.”
Everybody—the male and female actors and the audience alike—is captivated by this film that is a meditation on the existential horror of teenage life. We are all voyeuristic and as awkward as the teenagers portrayed because we don’t avert our gaze. We are compelled to watch as the dread of multiple deaths play out in front of our eyes. This is a public yet personal observation because we have all experienced the angst of being a teenager with the ever-present heaviness of being misunderstood.
The film ends with the complex self-reflectivity of the continually self-conscious boys who have been looking at the Lisbons for what seems like their whole lives, but is in the pseudo-reality of the film only a year. One of them symbolically holds a lighter aloft while they stand staring at the mausoleum that the previous summer contained a seemingly normal vibrant family—Lux (the central light) and the symbol of decaying white suburbia is therefore present in the opening and closing scenes of the film as the empty house looks back at them.
The mundane lives and quietly observed deaths are the constant threaded spectacle that Coppola weaves throughout the film: from the neighbourhood boys constantly watching the Lisbon sisters (and even eating popcorn whilst viewing Lux’s nightly sexual trysts) to the local woman who serves refreshments on a tray whilst people watch as the railings where Cecilia was impaled are ceremoniously removed. “The Virgin Suicides” is prime heteronormative theatre and a white cultural spectacle for all observers compelled to watch and who are, at the same time, helpless to do anything about what is taking place.
“Black Panther” (2018) is a typical Marvel action movie that’s not typical in its casting. A large amount of the action is performed by the women, main characters who don’t exist solely to assist the goals of a male character. They each have their own agendas and missions.
The groundbreaking film “Black Panther” features Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous superhero from Wakanda who officially spearheads the battle on the villainous players, while surrounded by the skills and expertise of an army of women. The film is exceptional for a number of reasons, and this essay will focus particularly on the power of the female agency in the film. This agency is heralded in the opening sequence when the panther goddess Bast is highlighted as the fountain source of truth and power in Wakanda. Bast’s gift of the secret, potent, heart-shaped herb is handed to the Wakandans via a vision, and is tended and guarded by mainly female gatekeepers.
The film’s principal stars are the country of Wakanda and the many women, not the titular “Black Panther” persona.
The strong representation of women gives innumerable female characters a performance range and depth that is not traditionally seen in superhero films or mainstream movies.
The all-Black female characters are not conflicted by their roles; they are strongly independent, unflinching, loyal, reliable, and trustworthy in varying measures.
From Angela Bassett, as the ever-elegant Queen Mother Ramonda, to the reclusive warrior women of the Jabari Tribe who fight to rescue Wakanda from the outside villains, the women of “Black Panther” teach the viewer about feminism without the need for a single white woman saviour feminist in sight.
The first human females introduced set the tone for the entire film: When the highly trained royal guard, Dora Milaje, knock on the door of Californian-based Wakandan spy, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), he immediately shows both fear and respect to their presence. He says to his soldier companion, “Open it. They won’t knock again.” Throughout the movie, the ceremonial honour guard and high-security protection duties for the royal Wakandan family and status of the throne are led by the all-female Dora Milaje.
During the entire film, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the Dora Milaje, commands respect from everyone with her quiet, dignified presence, her ever-ready status, and her unflinching loyalty to her position within the royal household. The female “Black Panther” characters are multidimensional and able to show both strength and tenderness without fracturing their personalities. An example of this occurs when General Okoye stops the rebellion of the Border Tribe, led by her “love” warrior
W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), with the following exchange:
“Drop your weapon.”
“Will you kill me, my love?”
“For Wakanda? Without question!”
The tripod of power that is central to “Black Panther” is embodied by two women and a man: King T’Challa, General Okoye, and international spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who are present at the high points of the movie, especially at the beginning—in the first ten minutes when their triangular connection is established—and later in the centre, and at the conclusion of the story when they resurface together to restore equilibrium to Wakanda and expand its global reach. Ayo, another senior Dora Milaje, joins the trio at the United Nations press conference in Vienna at the film’s ending, making the concluding image of the Wakandan Empire mostly female.
From a Black female perspective, “Black Panther” is the cinematic equivalent of
Michelle Obama’s 2018 book “Becoming”; it is a testament to the reality and life of a people who are often ignored. Both pieces of media focus specifically on the individuality of the Black female body, and the movie, like the Obama book, is a celebration of a circle of strong women who always lift each other up.
“Black Panther” disrupts the social constructions around the portrayals of race onscreen. From the protagonist (Chadwick Boseman) to the antagonist Killmonger aka N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), this film populates the story with a wide range of dynamically complex characters who are a mixture of realistic positive and negative traits. Even Killmonger’s female partner is depicted as a highly skilled hacker and undercover agent, despite the fact that she is later assassinated when she is of no further use.
“Black Panther” is a revelation and celebration of Black spaces personified by Wakanda that have been protected from the disruption of Western influences. It is also a filmic imagination and cultural restoration of the possibilities that may have occurred if Black African history was uninterrupted by white colonialism.
The women in “Black Panther” are central to this story; they are never invisible. They are the scaffolding, spine, and substance of the action within this epic creation; their actions and individual choices are essential to the shape of the narrative. In the closing scenes of the film, the titular Black Panther thanks Nakia for saving him and his family, before the powerful Wakandans stand before the world at the United Nations to reveal their true identity and offerings of their rich culture to the world.
Director Ryan Coogler uses a firm yet delicate and detailed touch with the direction of this film. The inclusion of historical and traditional African tribal garments is a
bow to the long history of the African continent, and the oft-overlooked strength, innovation, and intelligence of the people who originated from there (production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter).
The character of Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), along with her female design team, mirrors the vibranium that is at the centre of the story, and is an illustration of the hidden riches of Africans. Shuri is a perpetual innovator and a punmaster whose philosophy is summed up in the following sharp dialogue between her and her brother, King-elect:
“How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.”
“You are teaching me? What do you know?”
“More than you!” Shuri counters and walks away to continue her research.
Realistically, not all members of the Wakandan Tribes accept Shuri’s technological advancements. M’Baku (Winston Duke) from the Jabari Tribe demeans her with his initial reference to her as “a child” and views her position as a researcher as a person “who scoffs at tradition.”
M’Baku has some of the funniest lines when he interacts with the American CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman) in the mountain home of the Jabari. The humour of the film is not to be overlooked, especially when it so smoothly tackles both patriarchy and white supremacist ideals. An example of this is the discussion of beauty in the scene in South Korea. The film covers individuality and the choice of whether or not to wear Western hairstyles. When Okoye comments on the wig Nakia wears to blend in on their mission, Nakia—referring to American singer Willow Smith’s 2010 song “Whip My Hair”— smoothly responds, “Just whip it back and forth, eh?”
The normally naturalistic women complete their mission and eventually capture the elusive villain Klaue and, in the process, humorously use the abhorred wig and necessary high-heeled shoes as weapons against their opponents in the Busan, South Korea, nightclub.
The message of “Black Panther” is that the potential and influence of women must not be ignored or discounted. From the strategic actions of Nakia as an undercover spy and refugee saviour on a personal mission who will not abandon her calling, to the knowledge centre of Shuri, who has the final words of the film when she says to the injured Westerner Sergeant Barnes, “Come, there is much more for you to learn,” all the women excel as examples of depth and variety of the Black woman.
The women of Wakanda break all current Black women stereotypes: the Wakandans are strong, they have choices, and they are independent. Nakia, from the River Tribe, was T’Challa’s chosen one, yet she left him and her home in Wakanda to follow her
calling and her dreams for happiness by using her skills to emancipate and aide others in the world beyond the Wakandan borders. Nakia reinforces her agency when she reminds King T’Challa that she could be a great Queen if she wanted to, but her choice is to do something else.
The central question of this epic movie is “Who are you?” and what do you choose to do with all of who you are.
The Wakandan women are glorious from the commencement of the film to the closing credits and they present a varied representation of Black women’s lives. However, the follow-up Marvel story of the Dora Milaje is eagerly anticipated with the hope that the role of Ayo—a high-ranking royal protection officer—will be expanded to include more of the same-sex relationships that exist amongst women.
Curated and written by a team of eight Writers-In-Residence, an original anthology of writing has been produced by eight diverse and boundary blurring writers.
The writers were granted a residency which included free reign over the Independents Biennial venues and artists to build new stories, soundscapes and ideas.
Independents Biennial 2018 was curated by Art in Liverpool and spanned five boroughs of the Liverpool City Region. The full festival listings, including four public trails and four major new commissions are available here.
The sound of repetitive, relentless punching against a fixed piece of board starts this documentary, and a world upside down and back to front ends it. Every frame of the 107 minutes in between reinforces the idea that the director, Yance Ford, is sharing his personal elegy of grief with the camera. This is a story for everybody, but specifically for you, the person listening and watching right now. This is the message that is transmitted.
“Strong Island” (2017) is a documentary that does not pull any punches. It is a stark, literally in-your-face look at the justice system from the point of view of a Black man in twenty-first-century America. This is not an unfamiliar story. It is, however, a highly personal journey that amplifies other similar stories. Yance Ford, as the director and an active subject in the documentary, is endeavouring to reclaim his family’s history and to rewrite the stolen identity of his murdered brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr.
Twenty-two years after his brother’s death, Yance Ford faces the camera and starts a quest to find answers: “I’m not surprised that the case didn’t go to trial. I just want to know, exactly, all the reasons why.”
The gravity of the decades-long exodus from private shock to this public statement of grief is shown in the first full frame of Yance Ford speaking directly to camera. Ford warns that the film will be uncomfortable to watch; it is, if one does not want to face the truth. Fade to black. The transitions between the majority of shots are black screens. Just blackness. No sound. No words. Silence and darkness—a parallel of the family journey.
Central to the questions Ford asks is a pair of contrasting cases of shootings: William Ford’s and David Breen’s. Viewers subtly become aware of the differences between the circumstances of teacher William Ford’s shooting and subsequent death, and that of lawyer David Breen, 25 years old at the time, a former assistant district attorney (ADA) who had the Brooklyn Bridge shut down to transport him to a hospital after he was shot at a cashpoint mugging. Breen’s attacker, 18-year-old Kenneth Martinez, was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault, robbery, and criminal possession of a weapon.
William Ford was one of the two men who assisted Breen when he was assaulted—by apprehending the fleeing assailant who was armed with the gun—and was subsequently a witness for Breen’s case. Ford was later described by Ed Boyar (former Brooklyn ADA) as performing a “fearless … heroic act”: the evening Ford was killed was at the end of a week
of appearances in court as a defence witness for the shooting incident relating to David Breen. The legal system he was participating in, the legal system he obtained employment with as a correction officer, was the same system that turned its back on him later that day.
David Breen and William Ford both got shot, yet David Breen’s story had a different outcome. Breen was rushed to a hospital with major road closures and his attacker was brought to court. William Ford was left to die alone on the ground and his attacker walked free, sanctioned by the courts.
Barbara Dunmore Ford raised her three children with the principal aim to love one another, and to see character, not colour. The sad truth of this film is the understanding that despite his family’s standards, William Ford was judged primarily on his colour, not on his character.
The character was unseen. The grand jury deemed William Ford’s murder as a “justifiable shooting.” The police evidence in the investigation focused on the deceased victim’s height, weight, and exercise routine, not on the facts around the vehicle in question or the behaviour of the murderer, 19-year-old Mark Reilly. Reilly had an extensive criminal record; it is a matter of record that he used a rifle to shoot William Ford once in his chest. It is a matter of record that the murderer is white. It is a matter of record that the victim is Black. It is a matter of record that the defence system contended that the killing on April 7, 1992, was based on fear. Fear of blackness dictated that justice went absent in the grand jury hearing, which decided that the murder was a case of self-defence because reasonable fear existed. This decision was reached because the victim was deemed the prime suspect in his own murder.
“How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Yance Ford asks. Additionally, he wants to know “What are the contours of fear? Whose fear is reasonable?”
“Hidden Figures” (2016) noted, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Yance Ford’s experience shows that it is even difficult to get equal standing, so there is no hope of getting ahead in his personal experience.
The documentary invites the viewer to see William Ford not as the newspapers, the grand jury, the murderer Mark Reilly, and the police saw him, but as his family, specifically Yance Ford, saw him. Yance has multiple reasons to be passionate about directing the gaze of the viewer to the personality and character of his brother, because he himself has specific identity questions, being a transgender man. He has also stepped into the role as the only surviving male member of the Ford family following his brother’s murder, and his father’s
rapid decline and death from illness after that unresolved tragic event.
The filmmaker narrates the film with a steady voice and invites the viewer to see his brother as his family knew him, flaws as well. His whole humanity is displayed. The people interviewed are generally sat centre frame in upright chairs, facing the camera. This is a direct interaction between each speaker and the viewer. Yance Ford is the sole person whose face takes up the whole screen, looking directly into the camera. We only see Yance’s hands as he shares family photos and disseminates the family history and personal portraits as he saw and knew them.
“Strong Island” is a powerful indictment on a legal and social system that continues to fail the Black American community. Yance Ford is harnessing the power of the gaze in this documentary to make his own memory, his personal journey, and his family’s grief readily accessible to everyone. Yance Ford, as a filmmaker, highlights William Ford’s death and thereby removes the anonymity of this case from the never-ending list of publicly ignored Black men’s unjust deaths. To Yance and his sister Lauren, William Ford was a hero, so Yance Ford recreates the legally tarnished name of William Ford in the image of him that they held as a family. The content of this film is the reason why #BlackLivesMatter continues to be relevant as we slink through the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
The reality behind “Strong Island” is not a new story; it is an old story that is always fresh and relevant. That fact is this film shines a light on an individual experience, on humanity at the most raw and vulnerable moments, when sudden and unexpected death crashes into a family, and it is all completed with a mostly calm and always tender attention to the facts as viewed by the surviving family members.
In this portrayed behaviour, Yance Ford mimics his mother, his father, his sister, his community, his “race,” all who have been conditioned by repeated traumatic situations to retain a mainly calm demeanour in the centre of an anger storm. This film clearly demonstrates that any “Angry Black Person” is stripped of their right to be angry, or their right to be viewed as a person: “Angry Black Person” becomes “Angry Black Person.” Black is seen and judged according to the centuries of institutional racism and structural discrimination, and not as Barbara Dunmore Ford had taught, on character.
Viewers may comment that this is a biased, one-sided documentary. I am sure the director would concur: this film was created to balance the view of William Ford as seen by the community and legal structures of Long Island.
As standard justice seemed unobtainable, Yance Ford has taken his case notes in
documentary form, to the public. This film is worthy of its Oscar nomination, and it must be a bittersweet moment for any filmmaker. It is a film that should never need to be made, yet the direct personal appeal of the Ford family to see their son and brother as a human being who had been unjustifiably murdered, is overwhelming in its dignity and sadness.
It is a pessimistic view of life in America, and for Yance Ford and millions of people who look like him, it is a daily reality: living with the fear of being treated as a second-class citizen in school, housing, employment, and the law.
This documentary is a dissection of the reality of fear viewed from different spectrums of America. It is an investigation of how the justice system systematically protects white people from just punishment and unjustly castigates Black people as criminals, merely by virtue of their black bodies, even when the Black person is the victim. This is a stark portrayal of the impotency of Blackness when confronted by whiteness and civil justice, the impact of social segregation that nonchalantly draws lines around lives with the same ease it constructs chalk outlines around the fallen Black bodies.
This documentary is the world through Yance Ford’s eyes. It shows how white people imbue black bodies with monstrous characteristics that justify all their actions toward them, including murder. The American legal system seems not to question what reasonable fear is when a white man kills a Black man—it accepts all manifestations and actions against Black people as reasonable. Why?
Yance Ford asks many questions in an attempt to understand what happened to destroy his family, and why the expected murder trial never materialised.
Why? He repeats.
This is the one question Ford leaves with the audience.
Why is this OK? Why does this keep happening? Why don’t you believe what you see? Why do you deny our humanity? Why?
These questions remain unanswered because the Ford family is still waiting for justice, and the American legal system responds: no comment.