(L to R) Tracy Martin, Joy Reid, Sybrina Fulton on the Tribeca Film Festival red carpet for “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” (260751)
Credit: Tribeca Film Festival photo

It was the shot that sparked a movement. Under the cover of darkness Feb. 26, 2012, an altercation apparently instigated by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic man of mixed white and Native-American ancestry, and Black teenager Trayvon Martin, resulted in the death of the teen. Martin was approximately 250 miles from the diverse metropolis of Miami, where he lived with his mother Sybrina Fulton, visiting his father Tracy Martin in Central Florida. Zimmerman’s only reason for shooting was that he feared for his life. Martin was unarmed.

Martin was reportedly interested in horseback riding, flying lessons and video games. He aspired to a career in aviation. As news of Martin’s death hit the airwaves and social media, without news of Zimmerman being charged with the killing, young people across the nation, familiar with and grown weary of the plethora of such cases that dot America’s history (and indeed world history), mobilized. After Zimmerman, who was finally charged with second degree murder and manslaughter, was acquitted, they took to the streets with the now familiar chant, “Black Lives Matter.” A hashtag and a movement

was born.

What differentiated the Trayvon Martin incident from others in recent memory was the fact that Zimmerman was a civilian. He is said to have desired a career in law enforcement. On the rainy night that he confronted Martin as the teen walked home from a convenience store after buying a bag of Skittles candy for his cousin and a drink for himself, 28-year-old Zimmerman had gone as far as being coordinator of the neighborhood watch.

Martin’s extrajudicial killing seemed to reopen a portal to history many had fought to shut tight—a time when the Klu Klux Klan routinely and with impunity killed Blacks in the South and across rural America in the 100 years from Reconstruction through the civil rights era. The fatal incident was a chilling reminder of extralegal deaths of innocents such as those of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and 21-year-old James Chaney in 1964. It was alarming in its own particular way.

The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival this past Friday night screened the first episode of a six episode series co-produced by hip-hop impresario JAY-Z called “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.” It will air on the Paramount Network in July. The post screening Q&A was led by Joy Reid. Now host of her own news program on MSNBC, Reid was a journalist in Florida for many years. In addition to Martin’s parents, the panel consisted of the directors and producers of “Rest in Power”: Julia Willoughby Nason, Jenner Furst, Mike Gasparro and Chachi Senior.

The filmmakers were also part of the team behind “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” Near the start of the panel, Nason remarked, “We were very conscious of the connection that law enforcement was not directly involved in the killing, but what was involved was vigilante justice and white supremacy. It doesn’t have to be a cop that kills a Black person. It can be anybody and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till shows us this.”

Audience members visibly held back tears during the screening as well as during the panel. Martin’s parents recounted their memories of him and seemed to wrestle with what can only be described as a form of survivor’s guilt. The “what ifs” of his father, his mother and even of his father’s fiancée during her appearance in the film hung heavy in the air. Reid asked Fulton about being part of a “Sorority that you didn’t choose to be in, that unfortunate sisterhood.” Fulton pointed out her Delta sorority sisters, who were in the audience, and asked Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, to stand. She stressed the importance of having their support.

“We bond together because we have the same common pain and we have the same hurt, so we try to lift each other up and that’s what it’s all about,” she said, “You have to have the girls that you just scream at the TV with, that you throw things with, who tell you ‘OK, this is enough drinks.’ I don’t believe I would’ve made it through without them and without God.”

The filmmakers made the decision to use actual crime scene photos. They included audio of the 911 calls from Zimmerman as he followed Martin from the store, ignoring the dispatcher’s warning that he not do so. The teen’s screams for help are clearly heard in the audio of neighborhood

residents’ calls to 911 at the time the two fought and the gunshot rang out. It’s incredibly tough to watch and listen to, but the point of the film is to move the viewer to action.

Senior said, “We’re hoping that people take actions to understand earlier. It starts at, at the smallest level in terms of elections. Just get out and vote.”

The documentary features many lawyers involved with the case, including Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin’s parents. Police officers who made the death notification to Martin’s father and those who took Zimmerman’s statement right after the killing appear as well. There is footage of powerful NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, who was instrumental in the passing of the so-called Stand Your Ground Law, which was used as the reason why Zimmerman was not charged in the immediate aftermath of the killing.

Gasparro referred to the law as “the most disgusting, most morally reprehensible piece of legislation that one could ever imagine.” He also thanked an audience member who mentioned the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, which mandates states honor gun laws, such as concealed carry, of other states in much the same way states honor each other’s driver’s licenses. Gasparro said, “I can’t thank you enough for bringing this up. Whenever we hear this and when we find out about these new legislations, we need to tell our community and friends because it takes massive awareness to turn this battleship in the middle of the ocean. They’ve been writing these laws for decades, and we have to now step in and start quoting these people out.”