Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story Is the Must-See Docuseries of the Year

TV Features Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story Is the Must-See Docuseries of the Year

Rest in Power starts with an acceleration of images: First, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, becoming emotional during a pre-trial deposition; then, faster, the indelible iconography of the ordeal, the bag of Skittles and the black hoodie; finally, approaching a blur, the markers of a historical moment, Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter, Dylan Roof and Donald Trump. By the time it arrives at its conclusion, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s six-hour docuseries—wide-ranging, provocative, polemical—fulfills the promise of this fretful beginning, emerging as perhaps the definitive treatment of an American tragedy, the consequences of which reach far beyond one family, one community, one case. As Fulton reminds us in the first episode, there are exactly 71 seconds unaccounted for in the fatal exchange between the 17-year-old Trayvon and his killer, neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, on that late February evening in 2012: “71 seconds. And it changed America.”

Of course, the nature of that change remains contested, and it’s among the central subjects of Rest in Power.

“The telegraphing in that opening montage, that is to tell viewers that this is not a story about yesterday. This is a story about today and tomorrow, and the country that we’re living in now,” Furst explains, leaning over a conference table in Paramount Network’s New York offices, just hours before the first episode’s April screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s our belief that Trayvon Martin was a fork in the road, and was an alarm clock for many Americans, in that there were positive things that came about as a result of that—a consciousness, a new civil rights movement—and there was blowback. And we’re currently living in the blowback.”

To this end, the co-directors position the shooting, the subsequent investigation, and Zimmerman’s arrest, trial, and ultimate acquittal at the center of an ambitious (if unwieldy) portrait of the politics of race in America in the second decade of the 21st century. Although it’s not absent references to “yesterday,” from Sanford, Fla.’s white supremacist past to the O.J. Simpson trial, Rest in Power features two linked narratives, both largely focused on the years since Trayvon’s death: On the one hand, an extraordinarily detailed, damning account of the case itself, which the series frames as a prosecutorial failure of such proportions it amounts to malpractice; on the other, a sweeping examination of the socioeconomic and cultural context in which the case became a cause célèbre. As Willoughby Nason puts it, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton’s personal experiences shape the arc of Rest in Power, but “America was [its] own breathing, lively dragon of a character.”

When it comes to the series’ more personal side, in fact, the roots of Rest in Power lay in the immediate aftermath of Trayvon’s death. According to Martin and Fulton—both of whom are wearing red Trayvon Martin Foundation hoodies when I interview them over lunch in a separate conference room at Paramount—their attorneys directed them to start keeping notes early on in the process: “Document everything that you talk about. Document everything that you hear. Document everything that you see,” Martin remembers the instructions. These notes ultimately became the foundation for Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, published in 2017, and plans were swiftly set in motion for a documentary series and a feature film, with Jay-Z and the now-defunct Weinstein Company on board. As Fulton emphasizes, though, noting that there were at one time seven offers to produce the docuseries, “We didn’t have to rush into anything. For us, it wasn’t about the highest bidder. It wasn’t about the money at all. It was about who we felt would tell the best story, who would make it live on the screen.”

“We didn’t want the story to be told,” Martin says, “without us telling it.”

Rest in Power is not, then, an example of the clumsy, mincing “both sides” journalism that has so frequently failed to hold power to account, from gated communities in central Florida to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Almost essayistic in structure, elaborating its arguments through the accrual of information, it stints in neither its scathing assessment of State’s Attorney Angela Corey’s calamitous case against Zimmerman—botching jury selection, the handling of expert witnesses, and closing arguments, among other facets of the trial—nor in its understanding of the connections among white supremacists, the National Rifle Association, and the GOP. That’s not to say it plays fast and loose with the facts: Furst and Willoughby Nason interviewed more than 100 people for the series, with twenty-some sources in Sanford alone, and employed an investigative team that included a former New York Times journalist; fixers within the Sanford Police Department and the State of Florida; experts on the origins of Black Lives Matter; and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which helped identify how the case was discussed in white supremacist chat rooms and message boards. Still, Rest in Power asserts a strong point of view, in part because the case in question offers no space for the neutral observer.

“Usually, when you interview a subject, you kind of ease into it,” Willoughby Nason says. “The interviews [for Rest in Power] were so feisty off the bat. It’s as if this story happened yesterday to every single one of these people.” Even what she refers to as the filmmakers’ desire to find “the gray area” is not, as you might expect, an attempt to carve out some moral “middle ground” to justify Zimmerman profiling, pursuing, and killing an unarmed black teenager. Just the opposite: “We want to show the spectacular nature of racism,” she adds, “but we also want to show the mundane aspects of racism.” Or, as Fulton says, recalling Emmett Till, “Trayvon Martin wasn’t the first.”

Admittedly, Rest in Power does not benefit from its prior association with the disgraced Weinstein, and the fact that MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid—who figures prominently in the series as a talking head analyst—has recently been mired in controversy over homophobic blog posts from the mid-2000s is something of a distraction. (Though the project was previously linked to onetime Weinstein apologist Lisa Bloom’s book Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It, that was no longer the case by the time filming began, according to a representative from the network.) Nor is its breadth always satisfying, at least in terms of the overarching structure: The sheer number of topics Rest in Power engages lends certain subjects the feeling of a detour, and others, introduced multiple times in case we’ve forgotten, the feeling of a retread.

And yet, set against its indictment of the case’s handling, and of the country itself, these minor qualms come to seem immaterial; its dispatch from the age we’re in is too fascinating, too illuminating, too enraging. From the transformation of the human landscape following the subprime mortgage crisis to the construction of “whiteness” to the NRA’s hand in the authorship and passage of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws—which Furst describes as “a complete and total rewrite of the definition of ‘murder’ in this country, a complete and total rewrite of the definition of ‘self-defense’”—Rest in Power effectively and comprehensively situates the trial of this century within the broader political, cultural, and economic currents swirling around it, at once a consequence of and a catalyst for the clash of opposing social movements—white supremacists and black civil rights advocates—for which our moment is likely to be remembered. It’s that act, with its suggestion of piecing together (re-membering) that which has been torn apart, that undergirds Fulton’s own hope for the series—the rough draft of a history still rounding into form.

“I want them to remember,” she says, near the end of our interview, of Rest in Power’s prospective audience. “Remember the life and death of Trayvon. Remember that Trayvon represents many African Americans. Represents many young people. Represents many high schoolers. Represents teenagers. I want people to remember that.”

Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story premieres Monday, July 30 at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network and BET.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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