'Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story': TV Review

A powerful, reformist docuseries.

Paramount Network's new docuseries is a gutting look at the murder that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

The rise of black horror  from last year’s Oscar juggernaut Get Out to this summer’s satiric fever dream Sorry to Bother You  has been one of the most vital developments in 21st century cinema. Artists like Jordan Peele, Boots Riley and Donald Glover walk the fine line between surrealism and social commentary in order to amplify the modern/historical experiences of African-Americans. Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story  Paramount Network’s gutting six-part docuseries from directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason  is another addition to this growing genre, a real-life absurdist horror story where truth is fiction and victims are villains.

The murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 conjured a nationwide maelstrom. Like the heart-wrenching casket photo of civil rights icon Emmett Till, the selfie image of Martin’s young face, haloed by his infamous gray hoodie, continues to haunt America’s ongoing racial crisis. Rest in Power’s unabashedly reformist laser-focus draws the throughline from his death to spark of the Black Lives Matter movement to the advent of the alt-right. In doing so, it uncovers the gargantuan sociopolitical scale of injustice that continues to terrorize the African-American community. Only last week, a black teenager named Nia Wilson was slaughtered in a random attack on Oakland, California's BART. Rest in Power is more than just a record of Martin’s brief life and shocking death — it’s a call to action.  

Furst and Willoughby Nason’s work is an overwhelming collage of interviews, audio recordings and video footage, expertly stitched together to tell the story of a Skittles-carrying black teenager who was confronted by a paranoid neighborhood watchman and shot during their altercation. (George Zimmerman claimed self-defense.) Rest in Power is not for the faint of heart: Viewers witness a number of chilling 911 recordings made the night of Martin’s murder, including George Zimmerman’s furtive calls to police as he approached the boy. "These assholes. They always get away," Zimmerman grouses on the line.

Even more horrific is the audio of terrified screams in the background of neighbors’ emergency calls. The fascinating fourth and fifth episodes, which cover Zimmerman’s trial, raise the question of whose screams were, in fact, recorded. Zimmerman’s witnesses assure the jury they were his, terrified for his life. Rest in Power unapologetically sticks with Trayvon’s mom, who is sure these bloodcurdling sounds were her son’s last.

As with the now-classic docuseries O.J.: Made in America, the filmmakers here take their time to dissect every inch of a racially incendiary crime that eventually led to a seismic acquittal. (Florida failed to rule Martin’s murder a crime, thanks to its vigilante-friendly Stand Your Ground law.) The best sequences of the series zoom into the darkest reaches of this case: the Kafkaesque trial that banned the words "racial profiling" and tried to paint Martin as a thug and his star witness as a stereotype; Zimmerman’s alarming post-trial fate and his embrace of the act that made him famous (which allegedly includes carrying around Skittles bags to sign for his fans, according to witnesses).

Unexpectedly, as it turns out, the forces that led to Martin and Zimmerman’s clash were a consequence of the housing crisis: The formerly-flush gated community Zimmerman was trawling had recently opened up some units to Section 8-qualifying folks prior to Martin’s murder. A number of 911 calls reveal he had complained about the newcomers’ presence many times before, even calling the police on children playing in the street.

The camera particularly concentrates on Martin's weathered parents, Sybrina and Tracy, whose emotional journey nearly takes precedence over Trayvon’s horror. (While we get some sense of who he was  an ambitious aviator-in-training, an experimental teen  I was reminded of Laura Palmer Syndrome, or the tendency for crime stories to become more obsessed with the gruesome act than the person who was robbed of his or her future.) "The life I had is absolutely gone," murmurs Sybrina, a mother denied the privilege of long-simmering grief.

Martin’s death was a modern-day lynching that exposed the power of technology and the democratizing nature of social media…up to a point. The documentary makes you wonder just how many racially motivated deaths and other barbaric abuses have slipped by the sleeping (or willfully ignorant) public prior to the age of Twitter. The lengths that the defense went to to humiliate Martin's loved ones and desecrate his memory  like grilling Tracy about his son's tattoos and the gold caps on his teeth, as though physical signifiers justify murder  merely showcase how the banality of evil pervades our justice system. 

Directors: Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason
Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Paramount Network)