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A New Netflix Documentary Addresses Police Brutality With Personal and Political Force

Pacific Standard recommends Strong Island, more cinematic memoir than true-crime investigation.

The deaths of black Americans at the hands of police officers have made countless headlines in recent years, in part due to the video-capturing capabilities of smartphones and Facebook Live. This uptick in attention has put pressure on police departments to take racial-discrimination allegations seriously; some widely circulated cases have even spurred federal investigations of cities' police practices. And yet, critics fear that this high-profile attention to videos of police killings may also be normalizing images of violence inflicted against black bodies, and desensitizing viewers to their horrors. As Jamil Smith wrote in 2015 for the New Republic, "[t]he legacy of our increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses."

Strong Island, a documentary about a police shooting of a black man coming to Netflix this fall, endeavors to awaken them. More a cinematic memoir than a true-crime investigation, its subject is the 1992 Long Island killing of William Ford Jr., director Yance Ford's brother. The incident follows a familiar format: An unarmed black man is killed, and a white defendant is acquitted before an all-white jury. Yet as Ford traces the events leading to his brother's death and its aftermath, he also tells an intimate family narrative, interweaving interviews with himself, his mother, sister, and close friends. "[T]he film invites the audience into the life of the Ford family, but that family could also be thousands of others," Ford said last March.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.