Yance Ford is the first transgender director to receive an Oscar nomination, for his documentary “Strong Island.” The film is a brutal, intimate portrait of the unraveling of his tight-knit family following the death of his brother, William Ford Jr., in Suffolk County, Long Island, in 1992, and an all-white grand jury’s decision to not indict the white man who shot him.
While Mr. Ford was a somber, deeply sorrowful presence in the film, he flipped out when the Oscar nominations were announced; we know this because he recorded his gleeful reaction and it made the local news. I recently spoke with him about how the film has helped shift his lifelong grief, and his hope that other transgender people will be more accepted as a result of his nomination. Here are excerpts from our phone chat this month.
What kind of feedback are you getting to the film?
I’m hearing from people who were former students of my mother at Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York in the ’70s and ’80s [where she was the principal], and from school at Rikers [where she started a school for women]. I’m hearing from people who were friends of my brother in high school who didn’t realize he was dead. Friends of mine from elementary school and high school.
Netflix opened the door for the rest of the world to see the movie. It just so happened the rest of the world includes people who have written to say my mother changed their lives. People saying yes, thank you for showing that this is not something that black people have been imagining. It’s really humbling.
I interviewed you this past summer, and now you sound so much lighter, less burdened.
“Strong Island” has been doing more and more of the work. I think that’s the shift you hear in my voice. That I haven’t been the one to have to carry it all. It’s out in the world and can speak for itself. It does take the pressure off me in a way. I definitely feel like I’m more present than the 1992 Yance or the 2012 Yance, when I walked away from a very stable job into what felt like a great unknown. Being out as a trans man isn’t new in my personal life, but it’s new in the public sphere. I started part of my transition before the film was complete, and now I’m further along in my transition. I’m also more comfortable in my skin. The past 10 years has been about the movie, the, movie, the movie. And then I get to be in the world as my authentic self. I think that’s the lightness that you hear.
How does it feel to be so inspiring for people?
I have been gender nonconforming my entire life. One of the things I discovered last year was my brother knew that I was gay, and he had told all of my friends, “Listen Yance is gay, and off limits. I’m taking Yance to everything, prom, this thing, that thing.” It reaffirms that my brother saw me for who I was. I can with this nomination remind people that trans people in general and trans people of color in particular are subject to violence at higher rates than most any other group. There was just an article about how trans women feel targeted by the N.Y.P.D., and were assumed to be engaged in sex work. If my nomination helps people at all think about the transgender folks in their lives, in their communities, and treating them as humans and equals deserving of protection, I’m happy.
Have you heard any reaction from law enforcement in Suffolk County?
Suffolk County criminal justice is in disarray. [Its former police chief is in prison, convicted in 2016 of conspiring to obstruct justice among other charges. The former district attorney faces charges of trying to derail a federal investigation.] I haven’t heard a peep, and I honestly didn’t expect to. One thing I learned in making the film is that the people involved think they asked all the questions. They think they’re right. This is what happens with not having a mechanism for review of the grand jury system, when you have a system that assumes every decision is correct, that doesn’t include a mechanism for review no matter how many studies reveal racial bias.
Does the film’s release and success ease the weight of your grief, or change it at all?
Grief for me is a moment-to-moment experience. I wish my parents were here to see it. I wish my mother were here to see this because she participated in the film. I have a lot of surrogate parents, but there’s no one like your mother. At the Gotham Awards they played a clip of my mom; it was incredible. The entire room came to a standstill. It was amazing to see the effect my mother has on people. On the other hand, it really magnifies how absent she is.