Coming two years after American Crime Story and O.J.: Made in America reignited our fascination with the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story examines a case that is in many ways its photo-negative opposite — the 2012 murder of a black teen in Sanford, Florida. Each of these murder cases stoked racial tensions with painfully effective strategies: During Simpson’s trial, the defense overtly used race to discredit law enforcement, while George Zimmerman’s defense team subtly invoked racial bias to discredit his victim. Both resulted in accused murderers walking free, but only one spawned a social justice movement — and that evolution from outrage to anger is the primary focus of Paramount Network’s six-episode docuseries (premiering Monday at 10 p.m.).
On Feb. 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot while walking back to his dad’s house after buying a bag of skittles and a can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail. On his way he encountered Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, and 71 seconds later he was dead. Through police interrogation videos, surveillance footage, and interviews with Sanford law enforcement, Rest in Power — exec produced by Shawn Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z), among others — effectively chronicles the immediate aftermath of the murder, as police tried to vet Zimmerman’s story of self-defense. As days passed with no arrest, Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin — reeling with grief and anger — hired the “Johnnie Cochran of Florida civil rights law,” Benjamin Crump. His message: “Either you choose to grieve, or you choose to fight.”
Like O.J.: Made in America, Rest in Power looks to examine the cultural context of a flashpoint moment, and the circumstances surrounding Martin’s murder encompassed everything from the NRA’s influence on gun laws (Florida’s Stand Your Ground law bolstered Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense) to the housing crisis of 2010 to the town of Sanford’s own history of racial tensions going back to the Civil War. Though the judge at Zimmerman’s trial barred the prosecution from discussing “racial profiling,” Rest in Power details the way race dominated the proceedings, from the mostly-white jury to the defense team’s demeaning treatment of Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel on the stand. Much is made of the prosecutorial team’s apparent discomfort with addressing racial issues, though attorneys Bernie de la Rionda, John Guy, and Richard Mantei do not appear on camera to defend themselves. Don West, one of Zimmerman’s lawyers, does give an interview, noting at one point, “There’s nothing to suggest that race was a motivator in George Zimmerman’s actions.”
Rest in Power does not aim to change minds — those who believe Zimmerman’s use of deadly force was justified are, let’s face it, unlikely to watch. Instead, this series wants the viewer to hurt, to be angry, to refuse to look away. As Tracy Martin recalls the moment a police officer informed him that his son was dead, the camera pans across a picture from the crime scene — Trayvon’s legs sprawled lifelessly in the wet grass, his white-and-red Air Jordans flecked with mud — as photos of a chubby-cheeked baby Trayvon flash in and out of the frame. But with every heartstring it pulls, Rest in Power acknowledges the role image played in fueling the anger against — and support for — Zimmerman and the system responsible for bringing him to justice. Early on, Fulton and Martin address the less angelic aspects of Trayvon’s personality — the two-week suspension for possession of marijuana, the photos of him extending double middle fingers to the camera and sporting a gold, gangsta-style grill — all of which were used by Zimmerman’s supporters to paint a picture of a troubled teen whose thuggish behavior led to his own death.
Countering all the anger and ugliness surrounding Trayvon’s murder is the birth of Black Lives Matter. Rest in Power traces BLM’s growth from a hashtag — spawned after the not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial — to an organized social justice movement. Unfortunately, it all falls in the final episode, which also attempts to touch on the 2016 election, the women’s march, the rise of hate groups in the Trump era, the March For Our Lives demonstration after the shooting massacre at Parkland High School, the toll the case took on the men and women of the Sanford Police Department, Zimmerman’s several brushes with the law after his acquittal, and the threatening texts Zimmerman sent to the private investigator Rest in Power producers hired to locate him in 2017.
It’s all far too much to cover in 44 minutes, and the last episode of Rest in Power feels like a conversation that gets cut off mid-sentence. What started as an effort to record a moment in history became, by the end, a documentary of the moment we’re living now. If ever a series had enough material for a second season, sadly this is it. B+