The biggest problem with Strong Island - but oof, what a terrible way to frame it. The movie has problems, of course; very few movies have absolutely no problems. But not so many movies are good at sympathetically displaying a range of human despair in a tight, intimate way that makes you feel like weeping the whole length of the running time, without ever getting away from a profound, noxious sense of loss. And Strong Island is very, very good at that indeed.

So let me apologise, and back up: as good as Strong Island is, it has one big problem, which is that it's way too eager to dress up its crushingly potent central story, and make sure we understand that it is telling an Important Story of the Day. And of course it is - we know that without director Yance Ford needling us about it.

There are two aspects to the film. The better one is that it's a memoir of familial loss: in 1992, Ford's 24-year-old brother William Jr. got into an argument with a white auto mechanic (the Fords are African-American), who killed him, claiming to feel threatened. A quarter of a century later, Ford (who has since logged several years working as a producer with PBS) revisited the tragedy, recounting his own feelings of loss, from the general (the trauma of the sudden, violent loss of a loved one) to the heartbreakingly precise (Ford is especially sorry that William died before he, Yance, had an opportunity to come out as transgender). And he also interviews the rest of the Ford family, most notably his and William's mother Barbara, for their thoughts on loss, and the broken, harmful system that doesn't merely allow, but encourages everyone of every identity to view black men as uniquely prone to violence, with pre-emptive "self-defense" as both natural and desirable.

This is unnervingly powerful. Ford's directorial style is flat and to the point, staging his own interviews as something like a nightmare self: he stares directly into the camera, in the dead center of the frame, drily reciting the facts of the case and the emotional turmoil he's felt in all the years since. The extreme neutral minimalism of this style - and Ford uses a variation of it throughout the film, though it's never so exactingly flat as in his direct address - gives Strong Island a kind of dull authority, one that makes no real effort to make us think or feel much of anything, but simply to absorb the data points the film has to deliver. And because of this dullness, this neutrality, the extreme depths of pain the Fords describe hits with almost unendurable force. It's so perfectly balanced that Yance Ford himself only needs to show the slightest sign of emotion for the film to become suddenly overwhelming, and he doesn't only show the slightest signs of emotion, particularly when he gets to asking that most poisonous of questions, what more could he have done to fix this?

That's one aspect, and it's enough to make Strong Island a masterpiece, weaving the personal and social around each other and telling a film about a systemic injustice that seems all the crueler for how vividly it depicts the personal effect of that injustice. That's all the film needs: that's a great work of political cinema and a great drama and one of the year's finest documentaries. And yet, this is eventually not the film Ford wants to make. Perhaps because of his time at PBS, or his association with journalist-filmmakers like Laura Poitras, he has elected to present this, not as a diary, but as an investigation: what happened in 1992, how did the killer Mark Reilly skip away without even an indictment, how is it that William Ford, Jr. became, in  phrase given different iterations throughout Strong Island, the prime suspect in his own murder?

Permit me to be blunt: turning this into a true crime story cheapens it. I understand the impulse to connect this to the present moment of the 2010s, an era of police brutality, horrifying "stand your ground" laws, and Black Lives Matter. But Strong Island had done that already. There's no need to add what amounts to a completely new subplot to get at these message, unless you are petrified that your audience might possibly have failed to notice it. And while I can imagine the viewer who needs that prod, they're not the kind of viewer who elects to watch sad documentaries.

Even then, the true crime aspect, while annoying and ineffective, is only really made bad because Ford adopts the most annoying perspective in modern documentary filmmaking: the tedious Michael Moore-style faux naïveté. You know the kind, when a director keeps going around scoring interviews with people he knows in advance will stonewall him, and keeps asking in earnest tones, "however could this have happened?" Except that Ford damn well knows how it could have happened, and so does the viewer. Framing so much of Strong Island as a quest to discover, to the film's shock and horror, that structural racism exists is irritating for how it gets in the way of the much superior domestic material, insulting for how dumb it seems to think the viewer to be, and self-defeating for how dumb it seems to make itself. The film remains astounding, emotionally brutal and socially meaningful, formally insightful, and righteously angry; but it does far too much to leave itself "a very good film", when "a truly great film" was, like, right there.