I’ll make them feel my gonorrhea and the gonorrhea in themselves. The impetus for this grotesque desire arrives midway through the ninth season of Seinfeld, when Kramer enrolls as a medical actor at a local hospital, performing ailments for PhD students to deduce. Kramer, convinced gonorrhea falls short of his talents, longs for cirrhosis of the liver or bacterial meningitis, the “Hamlet of diseases.” After all, he didn’t snort ground pepper to refine his sneeze face for just a little urinary discomfort. So, on the day of the exam, Kramer adds some impassioned showmanship—he dims the overhead lights and sparks a cigarette before launching into a tale of the haunting memories of lost love that accompany the burning in his urethra. The doctor-in-training shouts, “Gonorrhea!,” followed by a round of applause and an ecstatic Kramer.
While played for laughs, Kramer’s scene underlies the complexities of performing pain. His histrionics give context to his illness, informing the diagnosis. In the titular essay of her 2014 collection The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison also plays sick. Alongside a diverse cast of characters—high school kids looking to fund their next party, aspiring DiCaprios and Kidmans, retired folks unsure of how to spend their days—Jamison signs up as a medical actor to earn a little extra cash. Unlike Kramer, though, Jamison’s theatrics are meant to solicit more than an accurate diagnosis. Jamison must also evaluate the doctor’s voiced empathy for her situation, a task more difficult than it seems. “That must be really hard,” and a head nod don’t earn you a check for empathy. The appointment must hold more than the hollow mechanics of human connection:
Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see: an old woman’s gonorrhea is connected to her guilt is connected to her marriage is connected to her children is connected to the days when she was a child. All this is connected to her domestically stifled mother, in turn, and to her parents’ unbroken marriage; maybe everything traces its roots to her very first period, how it shamed and thrilled her
Physical symptoms are a cypher for the greater location and history of pain. Medical acting is meant to train doctors how to mine the depths of that pain, to draw out what is sublimate so they can both imagine and interpret the suffering more clearly. If medical acting is a form of teaching and translating empathy for future doctors, then film and media is our equivalent for navigating the world at large. It is Roger Ebert who deemed film (at its best), “a machine that generates empathy.” “Immersive storytelling,” now ubiquitous due to the rise of virtual and augmented reality, emerges from a hypothesis that proximity to suffering awakens empathy. If you can plunge into the world of a Syrian refugee or a woman seeking an abortion or a wrongly imprisoned father, then you can truly understand their gruesome realities. Nowhere is the evocation of empathy through others’ pain more evident than in the growing landscape of true crime documentaries, which rely on DIY methods of reclaiming justice.
With the recent release of Yance Ford’s true crime docu-memoir, Strong Island, we are confronted with a new manual for empathy that invites the viewer to inhabit spaces of grief so that we might ask the right questions about injustice in our country. But before Strong Island, a distinction in its genre, there were the disappointments: The Jinx, Mommy Dead and Dearest, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Making a Murderer—and so many more. These true crime documentaries shepherd us deep into the horrors of humanity: a man capable of triple homicide, an abused child’s matricide, a woman’s violent retribution for her rape. These films take the viewer on a journey, so that we might play detective to an injustice as a doctor might play detective to an illness. Her mother had Munchhausen syndrome by proxy? So she used the Internet to seek solace and companionship? The boyfriend she met in an online chat room helped kill her mom? And now she is imprisoned for just trying to flee her abusive situation!? The director’s hand is always felt in these films, moving us in one moral direction. The protagonist has either been wrongly implicated or wrongly exonerated. These stories are rooted in trauma tourism, a voyeuristic glee that allows us to feel satiated in our recognition of “injustice” but still safe from such supposedly erratic displays of violence. With the proliferation of true crime films comes a pop empathy, one that eschews the tragic and the deep and embraces an ephemeral proclamation of justice—#freestevenavery, retry Robert Durst. Strong Island offers a new approach to evoking empathy from a true crime story, one that moves past the discovery of a singular injustice, and implicates the viewers in an insidious inequity.
Three weeks before the Rodney King riots inundated Los Angeles and the country, William Ford Jr., a twenty-four-year-old black teacher and corrections officer in training, was shot and killed by Mark Reilley, a nineteen-year-old white auto shop employee. One month earlier, the owner of the auto shop rammed his tow truck into William’s girlfriend’s car. In exchange for avoiding a police report, the owner offered to repair the car for free. A few weeks later, William went to check up on the repairs when he and Mark got into their first altercation. Mark insulted William’s mother and in response, William threw a vacuum on the ground, and then left. A week later, William returned to finally pick up his girlfriend’s car, which is when he was shot and killed. William is ultimately punished (with his life) for the misdeed of another man, which is what brought him to the auto shop in the first place.
While Strong Island’s locus is William Jr.’s death, the event itself hangs in the background. Yance, the director and William’s brother, opens first and foremost with his mother, Barbara Dunmore. As a transgender man, Yance is now Barbara’s only son. Barbara, an older woman with white hair cropped close to the crown, and dark, heavy eyes, grabs the air with her fists and pulls it close to her chest, sitting inside her kitchen in her two-story brick house on Long Island. “This has been our home,” she says. “147 Cone Avenue, Central Islip.” Behind Barbara is a backdrop of pastel: a red teakettle, turquoise counters, mustard pots lining the windowsill, and the glisten of sprinklers occasionally splashing the kitchen window.
Rather than sequencing the crime itself, Barbara first guides us through a spatial and familial legacy that complicates the Ford’s pain. Barbara’s familiarity with unjust death began at an early age. When she was only two-years-old her father died of a severe asthma attack. Despite his dire condition, Mr. Dunmore was made to remain in the colored waiting room, where he ultimately suffocated before receiving any medical assistance. Fast forward a decade and Barbara meets the love of her life, William Senior, in middle school, marrying him on July 10, 1965. In the early ’70s, after Barbara and her husband migrate from Charleston to Brooklyn to escape the shackles of Jim Crow, they land in Central Islip, where William Senior conducted the J Line in the afternoons and evenings, and Barbara taught professional skills to young women awaiting release from Riker’s Island Prison. What wasn’t a reprieve from segregation then remains one of the most divided regions of the country today: 74% of the black population in Long Island would need to be re-dispersed to achieve racial equity. The waiting room Barbara’s father died in, the neighborhoods of Central Islip, the tracks of the J line, the isolation of Riker’s Island: Yance constructs a world before his brother, collecting the threads of his family’s pain and its historical origins.
We follow the birth of Barbara and William Sr.’s three children—William Jr., Yance, and Lauren—through Polaroids of suburban life. Their love is felt in the photos of birthdays, graduations, trips to the Capitol, but also in daily moments of joy—the three siblings laying on the couch or hugging in front of their 1980s plaid recliners. Although it was not constant bliss (the mortgage, car payments, and Catholic school tuition took a toll), it is obvious that there’s was a loving middle-class black family, a rarity on any screen. They lived their lives until they were reminded that black people are not afforded that luxury, that black love is often supplanted with black grief. Yance’s intimate approach to his family history serves as a confrontational counter-narrative to the stories white audiences ascribe to the dead children of black families: he had a growing restlessness with authority, she had an inclination towards drugs, he belonged to a gang, she had negligent parents, and the many other tropes that are used to blame black boys and girls for their own murders. Yance answers all of our racist questions before we can ask them because they aren’t the right questions for us to ask in the first place.
As we transition into the details of the crime, we are faced with a somewhat mundane sequence of events. There is no chronological unfolding, no thrilling momentum leading to a shocking reveal as is so common in this genre. Rather, Yance employs a circular storytelling, returning to specific moments that deepen with meaning as the film progresses. We learn that Yance spoke to his brother after he left the mechanic the first time around, when he threw the vacuum to the ground. Yance was proud of his brother, impressed by his show of strength. We learn that the auto shop was known to be disreputable from his friend Mike, who took William to pick up the car the day he died. We learn Mark Reilley walked away with no indictment. An all-white Grand Jury agreed Yance’s brother posed a reasonable threat to Mark’s life, simply because William Jr. threw a vacuum on the ground three weeks earlier. Barbara, his sister Lauren, close friends, even a grateful acquaintance, share their memories of William and the incident, but we never feel as though they are testifying, as though we are building towards an appeals claim. Yance is simply and profoundly reclaiming William’s identity through collective memories and reexamining the contexts in which we breed the Mark Reilleys, the Eric Zimmermans, the Michael Dunns of the world. Of his brother’s murderer, Yance, addressing the camera enveloped in a black background, as if speaking from an inner conscience, proclaims:
I haven’t ever, not once, tried to imagine what he looks like. I think he looks like, no offense to present company, every white man I’ve ever seen. I think he looks like the ticket taker on the Long Island Railroad. I think he looks like the guy in front of me buying a beer at the bar, I think he looks like the schmuck who took my cab. He looks like my physical therapist. He looks like anybody, anyone, everyone. He is everywhere. He looks like everywhere.
Public space becomes personified, implicated as a banal force of evil and violence—and after roaming through the family archives for the past hour, this feels like a natural evolution. Locating injustice in Mark alone is misguided as we have followed the Ford family traverse space after space that leaves them enslaved in new ways. We never hear from Mark, and his excision from the story reaffirms that violence is rooted in so much more than one singular character.
We denied the Fords justice in the public sphere, and so they retreated even further inward, making their home a sacred place, a character as pivotal as Barbara. Throughout his mother’s oral history, Yance cuts to shots of the exterior and interior of his home. The house is a structure of support, one that contains their grief: the window a brace, the beams a crutch, the brick a vessel. We watch the blinds shuffle with the air, as if the house itself is breathing. We enter the naturally lit bedrooms where Yance, his sister, and his parents dealt with their grief. The camera lingers, so that we can sit in these rooms in silence, so that we might inhabit that loneliness. The images of a warm, communal home are replaced with an emptiness that both preserves and erases William’s memory. Their grief is not brought to light to be mended. In fact, there is no healing on the horizon, no drug to alleviate the pain, no desire for closure. Our role as a viewer is to occupy the sorrow we too often seek to simply diagnose.
William Jr.’s autopsy report indicates there is no evidence of close range firing. As our screen turns black and a small picture of William Jr. gradually comes into focus, Yance asks us: “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear? What are the contours of fear? What do your eyes tell you? Do you see my brother? Dredge the river and you will find him or someone who could have been him. So you tell me, whose fear is reasonable?”
From these prompted questions come a million more: Whose lives are visible? Whose pain is just? Whose grief is vocal? Such inquiry is not rhetorical. Yance’s questions and our own are a call to action, but an epistemological one. Yance invites white audiences to implicate themselves in the crime, to question what they see as threatening and just. To dredge the river is to actively encounter the black bodies that have come before, forgotten and overlooked. Strong Island departs from other true crime films in its holistic approach to injustice. As with Jamison’s medical acting, this film seeks to draw viewers into the totality of suffering. It takes us through historical context to family intimacy to random violence to unjust infrastructure to clarity of pain and more pain and more pain. This broadening of context dismantles the theatrics of a murder and locates the event within a line of historical and concurrent suffering. When the victim is black, as so few are in this genre, the story is not about an irregularity in the criminal justice system, but rather an epistemic phenomenon that devalues black lives, black grief, and black anger. And for that, there is no easy prescription.
The final words we hear in Strong Island are Yance’s, narrating his brother’s last moments. “You realize there may be no heaven. There may only be the ground.” If you look carefully, that final shot of William Jr. lying on the concrete is actually Yance. The film is an obvious reclamation of history, but also an empathic map of a family’s pain, of many black families’ pain. Barbara’s grief, spawned by her son’s death, is connected to her children’s silence is connected to her segregated suburb is connected to her rising property taxes is connected to her strained marriage is connected to her father’s death. And maybe everything traces back to the moment she taught her mom, who was forced to leave fourth grade to strip tobacco like her enslaved ancestors, to read, and the shame and pride it stirred within her, of being parent to her own mother. The horizon of context goes on and on and on, as the unasked questions sit lodged in our throats.