After a harrowing opening sequence, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story begins with a photograph of Trayvon as a toddler. He’s dressed in a Mickey Mouse jumpsuit and has a birthday hat strapped to his head. His mother, Sybrina Fulton informs viewers he used to be called Crazy Legs and calls her son “so affectionate.” His father, Tracy Martin, gushes about Trayvon growing “whiskers on his chin” and says, “he wanted to do everything. He was like that glow.”
It’s likely the first time most viewers have ever seen the photo and is followed by several more pictures of Trayvon being exactly what he was: a child. The first episode of the six-episode documentary series — directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason and executive produced by Jay-Z along with Martin’s parents and others — does exactly that throughout, present things as they are.
The goal of Rest in Power is not to solve the mystery of Martin’s death, the statement the first episode makes is there is no mystery. George Zimmerman infamously gunning the 17-year-old Martin down on February 26, 2012, may not have been a crime, according to the 18th Circuit Court of Florida, but it was a tragedy and is presented as so.
Rest in Power is a brutal watch, both because of the disheartening tragedy of Martin’s death, and because of the heartbreaking realization that so little has changed in the six years since he was gunned down. Just a little over a week ago, Markeis McGlockton was gunned down in another “Stand Your Ground” shooting a little over 100 miles from where Martin was killed after a confrontation over a parking spot.
Still, traumatic as it may be, the first episode is masterfully crafted. The premiere covers the events surrounding the shooting, while agonizingly pointing out that 71 seconds will forever remain unaccounted for. Those 71 seconds “changed America,” as Sybrina put it, and only Zimmerman can truly say what happened in that unaccounted time.
The use of archival footage is powerful, as is the testimony from all of the principal characters around the shooting, sans Zimmerman of course. But it’s the framing of Trayvon as the child he was that resonates the most throughout the opening hour. The first responding officer on the scene even solemnly notes his surprise that the victim in question “was just a kid,” as he recalls arriving at the scene and performing CPR on Trayvon.
Even in surveillance footage from his faithful trip to 7-Eleven, Trayvon looks unassuming, almost timid. Yes, he is wearing the now famous hoody that may have cost him his life, but he doesn’t look threatening; if anything, he looks cold. At the moment where he was supposed to look so intimidating that someone felt the need to stand their ground, and kill him in a life or death situation, he looked like a child quite literally buying candy from a candy store.
But Trayvon isn’t treated as wholly innocent either. Widely-circulated photos of the teenage with his middle fingers up and gold teeth in his mouth are shown, and the story of his suspension for having marijuana residue on school grounds is discussed. Tracy admits that Trayvon began misbehaving after 10th grade. No punches are pulled, but the nuance that is normally stripped away from young black teens is now provided. Trayvon was still just a boy, even if he had made some mistakes. His father was trying to straighten him out, only to be robbed of the opportunity.
Zimmerman is presented matter-of-factly as well, and it’s that coldness and forthright telling of the story that sometimes makes the details of the story hit the hardest. For instance, it’s revealed, “George Zimmerman left the police station after midnight. He was not charged with a crime” only in text, on top of the video of the Sanford Police Department. Even with just the natural, ambient noise of the night, the white text overlay of that simple fact speaks volumes and is tormenting.
Later, the technique is repeated as Zimmerman is subjected to a voice stress analysis test to determine whether he is lying about his account of the shooting. “George Zimmerman passed the test. There were 9 questions. None addressed race,” is placed in the corner of the screen, and again the impact of those facts is amplified without any amplification. Furst and Willoughby Nason realized there is no need to embellish or accentuate this story, the statement of facts alone is beyond compelling and often heartbreaking.
There is little to no commentary on Zimmerman himself, just presentation of facts, often in his own words. Zimmerman’s 911 call as he followed Trayvon is played, as are the numerous, similar calls he made in the months before as a neighborhood watch captain. His confessional police interviews show as well, along with images of the damage to his face and head from his incident with Trayvon. Video of Zimmerman reliving the incident at the scene is shown, and a former police officer chastises him for using his gun even while in “fear of his life.” Zimmerman is mostly left to tell his own story, and the viewer is left to make their own judgments of him after watching him do so.
No details are glossed over, and every step of the shooting and the subsequent events are detailed. Some moments that may have previously gone unconsidered are chronicled, including the Sanford Police having to identify Trayvon and notifying his parents. The documentary plays both Tracy’s calls to report his son missing, and the call when he’s contacted by the police, and he agonizingly relives the tragedy for the camera as well. Tracy’s fiancee Brandy Green can barely muster up the strength to give her perspective and fights through tears to do so. Tracy himself was ultimately moved to tears as well. “You can’t even really explain the feeling,” he said.
The first episode of Rest in Power ends focusing on the micro ramifications of Trayvon’s death. His parents lament over the tragedy as the episode draws to a close, and footage of them remembering hearing the 911 calls leading up to and during the shooting for the first time is shown. Their anguish was already apparent, as expected, but watching their faces as they recall hearing their son screaming for help moments before he’s shot is torturous. They speak about recognizing their son, instantly, and struggling to maintain their composure. Eventually, they both cry, and it’s as if their son died again, right there in front of them. Again, Furst and Willoughby Nason let the story tell itself and play out just as tragically as it did for Tracy and Sybrina.
The scope pans back to the macro as the next episode is teased, and Tracy says “we opened up Pandora’s box” as footage of Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem is shown. If the impact of his untimely demise was lost on the viewer before tuning in, it’ll never escape them again after it was so methodically laid out in the first hour of the six-hour documentary. If that was the goal of Furst and Willoughby Nason, along with Tracy, Sybrina, Jay-Z and everybody else involved with Rest in Power they did that and more in the first episode. Viewers will be anxiously awaiting the next installment, even if it’s a story we’ve all seen far too often and know far too well.