SIX YEARS LATER
Jay-Z’s Powerful Trayvon Martin Documentary Takes Aim at the Myth of ‘Post-Racial’ America
The hip-hop mogul-produced docuseries provides a heartbreaking, in-depth look at the murder that ignited protests across America and created the Black Lives Matter movement.
By now, the details of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder in Sanford, Florida are well known: the 17-year-old Trayvon was unarmed, wearing a dark gray hoodie, and carrying only a bag of Skittles when he was shot and killed in a gated community. His attacker, George Zimmerman, was a trigger-happy neighborhood watch leader with a history of run-ins with law enforcement. The case gained national attention and sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement. After protests and public outcry, Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder. He was later acquitted, though the jury deliberated for 16 hours.
Trayvon’s murder is the subject of a new docuseries, Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, premiering tonight on Paramount network and BET. The series, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason and produced by Jay-Z, doesn’t add much new information to the existing narrative. It doesn’t need to. Instead, it takes a heartbreaking, in-depth look at the shooting more than six years later—and the state of race relations in America today.
Rest In Power provides powerful context for Martin’s shooting; featuring interviews with top civil rights lawyers, journalists from news outlets like Reuters and Politico, Sanford city and law enforcement officials, and Martin’s parents, the first episode aims to debunk the myth that in 2012, America was “post-racial.” The election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president may have helped fuel the assumption for some, but that ignores the intricacies of race relations across the nation and especially in southern states like Florida.
It’s these intricacies that Rest in Power so deftly explores, painting a portrait of a crime that would go on to inform much of the discourse around race relations nationwide.
Racist microaggressions abound in footage compiled in Rest In Power, from the Sanford police official who called Trayvon’s father Tracy with news about his son’s death and asked if she was pronouncing “Trayvon” correctly, to the Sanford P.D. public information officer who condescendingly explained to a group of enraged black citizens why they couldn’t arrest George Zimmerman.
The first episode begins with a brief introduction of Martin’s childhood and background, before leading into the events of February 26, 2012. Surveillance footage, 911 calls, and stark crime scene photos do little to mask the barbarity of the shooting. Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, nearly break down as they recall the moments when they found out their child had been murdered, and their subsequent frustration and rage at the fact that Zimmerman remained free for weeks after the crime.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump would later take on Trayvon’s case, and his interviews in Rest In Power are riveting. Well-aware of the challenges black Americans faced in their efforts toward justice, Crump is credited by fellow attorneys and reporters alike in the series for skillfully disseminating the narrative of Trayvon, a murdered young black man, to white mainstream media. Rest In Power emphasizes the role the media played in bringing Trayvon’s murder and his family’s subsequent quest to the forefront of public consciousness, eventually leading to mass protests across the nation.
But not all coverage was positive, the show is quick to point out. Many in the media used photos of Martin that reinforced stereotypical perceptions of him as a violent thug—stereotypes that worked in Zimmerman’s favor, as he claimed he shot Martin in self-defense after the unarmed teenager supposedly attacked him. Regardless, Crump’s legal ability combined with his influence—he enlisted the Reverend Al Sharpton in his quest to get the Sanford police department to release the 911 tapes from the night Trayvon was murdered—helped bring Trayvon’s case into the national spotlight, the show explains.
Rest in Power is hard to watch at times, and the final part of the first episode ends with a bittersweet victory: the release of the 911 audio footage to the general public. Martin’s parents are the first to listen, and both sob when recounting their reactions to hearing their son’s last moments. It’s chilling and undeniably sad, but also gives viewers a chance to hear the brutal conclusion of an encounter that would go on to shape modern race relations in America.
The series is well-aware of the context we live in now: minutes into the first episode, amidst overlapping clips of coverage of Martin’s murder, a familiar, grating voice rises above the rest: it’s Donald Trump, grimly proclaiming that the American dream is dead to thunderous applause. A brief history of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, enacted in 2005, reveals that NRA lobbyists were essential in getting then-governor Jeb Bush to pass it, hinting at a critical point just as relevant today as it was in 2012: conservative state and national policies can provide a breeding ground for racist ideologies that incite violence at worst and propagate hatred at best.
While perhaps fewer today would claim that we live in a post-racial nation (how can we, given the president’s racist track record?), it can be far too easy to forget the origins of the now ubiquitous Black Lives Matter movement. Rest In Power is a poignant reminder of how, even after six years of protests, court rulings, and more tragic shootings, we’ve still got a long way to go.