Danielle A. Scruggs previewed the premiere episode of The Trayvon Martin Story and came away from the experience forever changed.
The new six-part docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story promises to be a comprehensive look at not only the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 but also the political decisions that paved the way for “Stand Your Ground” laws, and how Martin’s death connects to the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of Donald Trump, and the current gun control debate that has been engulfing the country.
The first episode, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last Friday, April 20, includes a dramatic recreation of the night Trayvon was killed, archival footage, plus interviews with Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, aunts, and an aviation teacher, as well as interviews with the Sanford police department, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, and journalist Joy-Ann Reid, who also moderated a panel with the filmmakers and Trayvon’s parents following the screening.
The film shows photos of Trayvon’s dead body both covered and uncovered by a yellow tarp. We also hear the 911 tapes of Trayvon screaming for help before his pleas are cut off by a single gunshot. We also see a counter that periodically appears in the bottom left of the screen, tracking how many days after the shooting passed before the Sanford, Fla. police department arrested George Zimmerman.
The total number? 45.
These are, to be sure, powerful images and audio. In the panel that followed the screening, the filmmakers explained they chose to show the crime scene photos to make people understand the gravity of this story and how deeply white supremacy and racism is embedded within the American judicial system. “It’s hard, but we can’t look away,” Jenner Furst, the co-director of Rest in Power said at the post-screening panel. But I have to wonder, who is the “we” in that sentence?
How many times should images be published of black children, men, and women being brutalized before the people who need to care the most do so?
Does viewing these kinds of images engender radical empathy? Does viewing these kinds of images serve as a rallying cry to keep fighting for justice? Or does this further retraumatize a community that has witnessed on-camera deaths and beatings for decades, and seen the exact opposite of justice as the outcome?
I wonder who, exactly, has been looking away and burying their heads in the sand so deeply and for so long that it takes seeing photos of the body of a dead child and his blood-stained clothes to shock them into action?
Many people, include Trayvon’s parents, have made a connection between the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and Trayvon’s murder in 2012. And rightfully so, as Emmett was another victim of unchecked vigilantism. Emmett’s mother Mamie Till made the decision to have an open casket funeral and showed her 14-year-old son’s bloated, brutalized corpse to the world. And after the images from the funeral were published in Jet magazine, it sparked massive protests. In 1955, it was rare to see the kind of destruction that white supremacy and racism wrought on black communities in news media. In 2018, they are ubiquitous, available to us 24/7 on our phones, on social media, and on the news.
I think the episode was actually at its strongest when we learned more about Trayvon’s life through the recollections of the people who knew him best.
His father described the whiskers that were starting to grow on his chin. His aunt recalled teasing him for his increased appetite. His aviation instructor beamed with pride as he described Trayvon’s deep interest in becoming a pilot. Those moments drive home just how much was lost on that night in Sanford and what George Zimmerman took from the Martins and Fultons. As the rest of the series unfolds, I hope we get more moments like those. They are just as important, just as urgent, just as necessary.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.