INTERVIEW: Oscar Nominee Yance Ford Talks Strong Island

Yance Ford in Strong Island. Courtesy of Netflix.

Yance Ford spoke with Cultured Vultures over the phone last week about his Oscar-nominated documentary feature, Strong Island, and what the nomination means for the transgender community. With the nomination, Ford becomes only the third transgender person to receive an Oscar nomination.

Thanks for joining Cultured Vultures today. How are things treating you?
Things are going very well. Danielle, thank you for having me. We’ve been busy.

Congrats on the Best Documentary nomination for Strong Island. Can you talk about what this means to you?
Thank you. I think that anytime an award is recognized by your peers, it’s always meaningful for a director especially because I get to stand representing not just myself but an entire group of people—my producer, Joslyn Barnes, my DP, the editors, all the funders—who made the film possible so the nomination is incredibly special because it’s a way to say thank you all the people who’ve believed in the film for so long. It’s also, like I said, incredibly humbling to have your peers recognize your work. It’s a huge thing. It so rarely happens to people in their careers. It happened to the Strong Island team—it’s just an incredible feeling that I can’t quite words or an adjective to.

Why did you feel it was so important to tell this story?
My brother’s story even though it happened 26 years ago in April —there is a consistency of narrative around racialized fear and the lack of due process for black and brown people in our criminal justice system that my brother’s case was really an opportunity to explore in detail. I thought it was important to use what happened to my family to explore the larger issue because even though it’s set in my family, it’s an example of what happens to family after family, case after case, both 26 years ago and 26 from minutes now or 26 hours from now. The narrative of the inherent danger of Blackness is something that has not changed. Making Strong Island is a way for us to really force the conversation into asking how do you define reasonable fear and whose fear in fact is reasonable given the history of racialized violence in the United States.

What was the initial reaction like when the film premiered at Sundance last year?
The Sundance premiere last year was incredible. Sundance is a festival where you get a lot of industry people. Our initial premiere was incredible because a lot of my colleagues got to see the film for the first time there. We also had incredible things like ordinary people respond in extraordinary ways. There were prosecutors in the audience who stood up and commented about the flaws in the prosecutor’s approach to the film. We even had Malia Obama at one of our screenings at Sundance last year. What I didn’t realize was that 2017 was going to be the beginning of now over a year of taking the film over the country and around the world talking about the issues in the film and how it can be a catalyst for the criminal justice system.

You’re only the third transgender person to ever receive an Oscar nomination and the first director to do so. It came on the same morning in which a foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman, starring a trans woman in a leading role, was also nominated. Do you think this is a sign of progress for transgender community?
I think that I would answer that question in a couple of ways. I think there has been some progress for transgender actresses specifically. The two in the film Tangerine and shows like Transparent. There has been a splurge in a way in the visibility of trans actors and actresses. I think that with a nomination for an Academy Award, that’s a huge opening of a door to a place where we haven’t quite made the stride that people would like to see made. For my nomination as a director, the one thing I said to another journalist, I know lots of transgender directors and they are working in documentary space, some are working in the narrative space. I may be the first nomination of directors but I certainly am not going to be the last. I look forward to the day when the historic nature of this nomination becomes the footnote but until then, I hope that my nomination will continue to make it clear that Hollywood needs to be inclusive. When I say inclusive, I don’t mean tokenism. I mean genuinely interested in representation across the board. I think there are a lot of talented people in the transgender community and if given the chance, they would succeed as well as I have in whatever they like would like to pursue. Yes, it’s a sign of progress but progress is ever-changing thing and we need to not be complacent while at the same time celebrating these nominations.

How did you get into making documentaries?
I really liked documentary films. When I got out of college, a couple years after, I worked at a couple theater jobs. I was a welder for a while. You may not remember or even know that there used to be a job website called I saw, one day, a job listed at this documentary series that I knew and loved very well. That doc series was POV. I applied for a job and after several rounds of interviews, I got it. I became a part of the programming department there. I spent ten happy productive years at POV. Before I joined POV, I was an artist and I had been working on my brother’s documentary after he died. I had it in the back of my mind that at some point, I would make a film based on what happened to him. All sorts of directors from all sorts of backgrounds take chances and make sacrifices to make their passion projects a reality really helped motivate me to make the jump from a very comfortable and cool job into making the film full-time.

If there’s one thing that you want someone to take away from watching Strong Island, what is it?
I can’t actually boil that down to one thing, unfortunately. I think that what we have to understand is that criminal justice reform is not a single-issue reform movement. Criminal justice reform has to look at our criminal court justice system from all angles. It can’t be bail and bond reform. It can’t just be erasing the school-to-prison pipeline. It can’t just be prison incarceration rates. It also has to involve reforming how juries are selected so we don’t wind up with all-White juries and in my brother’s case, an all-White grand jury that declined to indict the man who killed him. I think that you need to make sure that you remember the standard is reasonable fear, not complete fear. That’s what I want the audience to take away. I want them to know that there’s not a single rhetorical question in Strong Island. When I ask the audience toward the end of the film how do you measure the distance of using the fear—that’s a real question. I think that as we begin to try to answer that question, then we will be taking what I think is very important and necessary step to hold it to reform as opposed to one-issue-at-a-time reform.

Thanks again for your time and good luck on Oscar Sunday.
Thank you very much.

Strong Island is available to stream on Netflix.

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