'Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story' Brings 'One of the Most Important Conversations' to Tribeca Film Festival
The JAY-Z-produced docuseries premiered at the festival on April 20.
A moment in Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story lingers on a pair of white and red Air Jordans. The photograph shown, taken of Trayvon Martin’s body hours after his death on February 26, 2012, is worked into the first episode of the six-part docuseries executive-produced by Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and JAY-Z. The filmmakers intentionally refrained from showing the slain 17-year-old’s body: The camera doesn’t pan out, but the dreadful reminder that Trayvon will never untie these laces sets in anyway.
We see Trayvon’s skin -- an exposed ankle between the tongue of his Jordan and his khaki cuff -- because one of his pant legs hiked up slightly when his body fell after George Zimmerman followed him down a dark pathway in a gated community in Sanford, Fla, and shot and killed him. We see this photo because it is evidence, a document from a crime scene, even if the perpetrator of said crime wouldn’t be arrested for weeks after the teenager’s death.
"We actually chose not to show a lot of the images that were shown in the courtroom, that Tracy and Sybrina had to sit through, because there was no need to see those again," said co-director/executive producer Jenner Furst in the Q&A portion following the first episode’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20. "It’s very hard, but we can’t look away. This happened. America has to be able to truly digest how horrible and tragic it was without it being gratuitous."
The violence that spawned that photograph was hatefully gratuitous. Rest in Power, the work of all involved and the action they encourage audiences to take is the polar opposite of that.
Mara Webster, the festival’s Director of Panels and Special Events, introduced first chapter of Rest in Power by calling it "one of the most important things we’ve ever shown as a part of the television section" and later said it brought "one of the most important conversations at the festival." Both statements speak to the urgency of the material: Rest in Power begins with Trayvon, but expands to address systemic racism, the violence it breeds and the power structures that keep it in place, all as the viewer recognizes that these forces remain insidiously at work in our current climate.
In a conversation moderated by MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Fulton and Martin -- along with Furst, co-director/executive producer Julia Willoughby Nason, and executive producers Chachi Senior and Michael Gasparro -- focused on the mission that sustains them as they adapt Fulton and Martin’s 2017 book, Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, for the small screen.
"It’s been very difficult, but it’s a tragedy worth telling, because it happened to Emmett Till -- nobody was held accountable," said Fulton, invoking the name of the 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955. "It continues to happen today. We want to make sure people remember not only Trayvon, but all the Trayvon Martins, and all the young men and women that he represents. All the senseless gun violence that continues to plague our nation today. So even though this happened to Trayvon six years ago, it happened to Emmett Till over fifty years ago. We have to be mindful that things needs to change. Gun culture needs to change. Mental illness needs to change. And also, the hatred that goes on in this country needs to change.
"We want to make sure that we’re a part of that change, so if it meant us opening our lives up -- and it’s not easy -- I think it’s important for people to realize that it took courage and strength to do this,” she continued. "This is nothing that we would have volunteered ourselves for. This is not something that I would have sacrificed my son for. I thank God for the people that continue to support us."
Every panel member stressed that action -- and action in the voting booth -- is crucial, and the conversation with the crowd at Tribeca furthered the filmmakers’ intent to inform. When a member of the audience mentioned the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, a piece of legislation passed by the House that requires states to recognize the concealed carry laws of other states across state lines, Furst thanked her for bringing it up and contributing to the conversation. Throughout the Q&A, several threads were tied between the laws and their enforcers that couldn’t protect Trayvon and indict his killer to our still-raging gun violence epidemic and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February.
"The difference is, the Parkland incident hit rural America; it hit the heart of America," said Martin of the Parkland, Fla. shooting when asked about its impact in changing the gun control debate. "Trayvon Martin wasn’t the heart of America. Trayvon Martin is categorized as the ghetto. When this took action outside the ghetto, now, America is awakened. Now everybody wants to do something about it. We’ve been trying to get America to do something about this for years."
Hopefully, America will listen, as Rest in Power succeeds in telling Trayvon’s story without buffering the brutal truths or overwhelming the viewer. Every photo -- be it the Air Jordans, his baby pictures or the iconic image of Trayvon in a hoodie -- serves a purpose. Every soundbite does, too, even -- especially -- the shattering 911 calls placed by frightened neighbors with Trayvon screaming for help in the background. Rest in Power forces a crucial conversation, but it’s up to the viewer to do the work and bring it beyond their screens.