Yance Ford makes Oscar history with 'Strong Island'

- This is the humble admission from an unlikely hero.

"I could not have possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey that we would end up here—that it would be historic," filmmaker Yance Ford said. "It's remarkable that this whole thing, it's like a very complicated yet very real reflection on what it means to live life as your authentic self."

Ford is the first transgender man nominated for an Academy Award. His documentary is called Strong Island, an up-close and powerful portrait of his family's struggle after his brother, William, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white teenager in Central Islip, a town on Long Island, in 1992.

The case never went to trial.

"I started making Strong Island, it really was with the purpose of doing two things—showing the consequences of a death like this and the lack of due process or justice," Ford said. "And it was also an attempt to get to know my brother and to make him a fully dimensional character, a fully dimensional person."

 

 

Ford started making the film 10 years ago. Since then, did the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and others change the way he made the film or inspire him along the way?

"I knew because of the reaction on Facebook, on my feed, people saying we need Strong Island now more than ever—I knew there was going to be a residence between the two stories," he said. "What I did not anticipate was that between 2012 and January 2017, when we released the film, that there would be so many more deaths that we would watch."

The film doesn't try to tackle all of these cases. It focuses on Ford's family and what happens when the justice system lets them down. has that resonated with the viewers?

"At the end of the day, movies that are about individuals," he said. "Movies that help you know the person, movies that get into the heart and soul of a family and what family lives through, the more specific those movies are actually, the more universal they become."

Strong Island is not just a film by a transgender man but about his journey. It takes viewers inside personal and private moments, such as a phone call.

"My brother called me—and in that moment even though neither one of us had the word 'transgender' at that time—he, I really deeply feel, called me because he saw me for who I was," Ford said.

The documentary, available on Netflix, is also a Sundance Film Festival winner. But Ford never expected this. He posted a video on Facebook that shows the moment he and his partner found out the film would be in the running for an Oscar.

Has he embraced the weight that comes with people lifting it up as a great movie for social justice and his example in the LGBTQ community?

"I feel like I have provided a tool that people who are much better being activists than I am can use to further the cause of criminal justice reform," Ford said.

"If I can help anyone who is struggling to understand what transgender identity looks like, with this nomination, I am thrilled to be that example," he added. "I am also just really excited that I get to get dressed up and go to the Oscars. I mean, come on—it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

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