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It’s been over six years since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida. The new docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story takes a deep dive into the tragedy, as well as the ensuing media coverage, public outcry and political response.
“It was the number one story in America, and that, surprisingly, doesn’t lead to deep coverage,” says co-director Jenner Furst. With Julia Willoughby Nason, Furst spent a year collecting footage and conducting interviews in order to build a more nuanced and complex narrative than the one that came out of the immediate aftermath of Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s subsequent trial.
The duo had previously directed the docuseries Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which debuted on Netflix and earned the filmmakers a Peabody award. For Rest in Power, they partnered once again with executive producer Jay Z.
Ahead of the July 30 premiere on the Paramount Network, Furst spoke with THR about the docuseries.
After you finished The Kalief Browder Story, did you know that you wanted to wanted to tell Trayvon Martin’s story in the same medium?
You open up this door to these incredibly deep and complex issues in America. We felt like even though we had thoroughly explored some maleficence and some broken parts of our criminal justice system, that there was a larger story to tell about American racism, about our original sin as a country, about how predatory these systems are to people of color, and how that is all in the DNA of this country. When we started hearing about the book that Tracy [Martin] and Sabrina [Fulton] wrote, we were being told about the project from Paramount, which was in early negotiations to get it. It just felt like an extension of what we were doing with Kalief.
Why a docuseries over a feature documentary?
The docuseries is finally having its day. When I worked on Brick City over ten years ago, when I packaged that show, there was something that was [beginning to] happen in non-fiction television. It was not reality TV, and it also was not a feature doc. In a limited-run series of six to eight hours, you get to tell a whole story; you get to live in portions of that story that a feature does not allow. This story was so dynamic that had Paramount said, “We want you to do 12 hours,” we would have had more than enough material to fill it. When I think of it as a feature, I just think it’s incredibly sold short on the complexities, on the nuance. For us, six hours is really tightly packed, and it allows the viewer to digest it in segments instead of having it all slammed down their throat.
Trayvon’s story was heavily covered by the nightly news and in print. What story did you want to tell that you never saw in that coverage?
It had been thoroughly covered by the evening news and by some incredible print writers, but the speed at which that coverage was being generated was leaving a lot of stuff on the floor. There were a lot of things that were incredibly fascinating, or disturbing or worth reporting on that didn’t have the time to be borne out, didn’t have the time to be vetted. So, on embarking on a ten- to 12-month project, we were able to take all of the ledes that had been written about and we were able to dive way deeper into the story and give the type of context that the daily news can’t give.
Also, of course, we were working with Trayvon’s family. There was always a response to Trayvon’s character because of the negative press, and it’s very unfortunate that we should have to humanize Trayvon — he’s a human being, we shouldn’t have to humanize him. But, because of the negative coverage, there was this kind of reflex of saying, “No, he was a good kid.” Look, he was going to be a pilot. He was a star football player. He was very smart. He was very courteous. What we were able to do was just start from scratch and let his family tell us who he was.
What do you mean by “humanizing” Trayvon?
When I think of myself at that age, of course I was having trouble in high school. The difference is I didn’t have a German shepherd and a law enforcement officer patrolling the hallways of my high school and then suspending me for two weeks. White privilege is at the crux of everything here. White privilege means your humanity is constantly valued at a higher rate than an African-American person’s humanity. When we talk about “humanizing” Trayvon, it’s a reflection of white privilege in that we would never even consider having to humanize a teenager that is white. We didn’t have to humanize JonBenét Ramsey. We didn’t have to humanize Natalee Holloway. But the fact that we have to humanize Trayvon Martin is emblematic of the racism in this country and the white supremacy that’s at play, because he has been inherently demonized by the systems of racism in this country, so we have to backtrack and humanize him. And that’s a very sad thing.
As a non-black filmmakers — with your acknowledged privileges and inherent biases — how did you go about making sure you accurately and sensitively told this story?
I feel like the first step in a process like this is that, if you are a white American, [you must] stop and acknowledge — whether you like it or not, whether you intend to be or not — that you are racist. I never, ever in my life wanted to be a racist. I never felt that I was better than a person because of the color of my skin. But the fact that I have grown up in America and I appear white at a glance has afforded me a great deal of privilege. So, rather than just constantly hedging, “Oh, how privileged am I? How biased am I? How racist am I?”, just start all the way at the bottom and acknowledge that any white American, even immigrants, anyone non-black, is different than a black American because of the way this country was formed. There is bias, there is inherent racism, and there is also a degree of ignorance, when it comes to those factors, within people.
[White America’s] comfort has been disrupted. And in that vulnerability is the real anti-racist work. For us, we tried to be vulnerable. We tried to be wrong. We tried to be everything but right and foolhardy when approaching this story. There were a lot of moments when our vulnerability taught us a lesson. And hopefully viewers, I’m talking about white Americans in particular, can get away from the sense of pride, veiled guilt and white guilt about these issues, and they can face it head on and just acknowledge that to be black in America is very different than to be white. And as white Americans we have a lot of privilege, and it is up to us to disrupt that privilege to make a better and more equal society. That’s where me and Julie were coming from, and hopefully that shines through in the piece.
As the killing of unarmed black teens continues to be covered, how do you hope the media coverage is amended?
It’s very unfortunate that black death has become a spectacle in America. We have gone past the moment of epiphany as a country, when things started to be documented in a much more thoughtful way and the coverage was really penetrating people’s consciousness. Now, we’re to a point with Donald Trump and the endless barrage of bad news that people are apathetic.
Unfortunately, the evening news is an assault on people’s senses. If [viewers] can’t have any context and can’t feel it in a human way, they can’t be motivated to change it. I think we continually have to do deeper, more contextual work on a local level to help bring people into the conversation and to help them see this happening in their local communities and help them to do the work that’s necessary to change it in their local communities. Because if we just focus on the news stories, and if we just focus on the spectacle — this really unfortunate and tragic spectacle of black death in America — we’re definitely going to fall short on the kind of legwork that needs to be done to make change in the country.
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