This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Just six years ago, George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on his way home in Sanford, Florida—a can of fruit juice cocktail in one hand, a bag of Skittles in the other. On one side, you had Zimmerman who hid behind Florida’s infamous stand your ground law as a reasoning for his actions. On the other, Trayvon, the teenager without the ability to defend himself was vilified by the defense. The resulting trial and acquittal of Zimmerman went on to spur a national debate around racism and gun violence, giving rise to a Black Lives Matter-tier of social awareness but left Trayvon’s parents understandably unsatisfied.
In response to it all, a new BET docuseries, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story—partly based on the 2017 book, Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin written by Trayvon’s parents—looks to reexamine the details (forensics, the media, the prosecution) by placing a magnifying glass on the country’s treatment of Trayvon, his parents, and black America through retrospectives, historical contrast, and pundit reaction.
One thing that’s made most clear in Rest in Power comes in the reframing of both individuals, not just as the symbols of two ideologies (racism vs. not racism) but as the people they actually were. Sybrina Fulton acknowledges her son’s transition toward teenage rebellion while still relishing in his child-like innocence and studious upbringing. Zimmerman is seen as a Latino with an issue with his identity, angry at the world who would view him as another “other”—an anger that followed Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent arrests thereafter.
Like several praiseworthy documentaries about criminal miscarriage, Rest in Power concerns itself with an answer to what happened, an answer Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin always knew to be true—that Trayvon was unjustly murdered beyond a shadow of a doubt. I had the privilege of talking to them about Rest in Power and more importantly, their son Trayvon Martin.
VICE: What has it been like having to relive this story so many times just to get this message across?
Tracy Martin: It was obviously difficult. It’s very emotional to have to go back to that period. But just as being Trayvon's parents, we continually saw the importance in retelling this story in the right way. To show who Trayvon Martin truly was by recasting a light on what really happened as far as the injustices that occurred. We always felt that the story behind my son was watered down in a way that left an impression as told by people who had never even met Trayvon. This was an unarmed child on his way from a store going home. This was also our son. No matter what, beyond that, it was absolutely worth it for us to go back down that road even if it meant reminding ourselves of the darkness that happened that night. We want to show the country from our experiences and the experiences of others that social change needs to happen now. We can prevent this from happening again.
So what ultimately influenced your decision in terms of who should be allowed to tell your son’s story?
It came down to choosing people who we felt were passionate about what occurred with our son and didn’t want to just cash in on our story. We wanted people who were willing to do the groundwork and research in order to ensure that everything felt covered from all angles. We had already seen Jenner Furst and Julia Nason’s work on The Kalief Browder Story, and that allowed us to trust them to get our side of things right with the proper sensitivity.
Was there a specific something that you needed to hear?
Sybrina Fulton: Oh yes, it was about the passion we had to hear from these people’s mouths. This included JAY-Z, who we often say we never met because we feel like we instead met the Shawn Carter JAY-Z, the businessman JAY-Z, the father JAY-Z, and the brother-in-law JAY-Z. He seemed a lot different than how many view him. He expressed passion and investment in a way that influenced our involvement. He spoke candidly to us and understood the story and pain as any father would who loved a child. That made a huge impact on how this documentary was handled. We wanted a picture of events that felt hard to look at and that felt truthful. We believe we’ve gotten that.
I asked this because one of the things that seemed obvious was how the media portrayed your son as a villain. How did you find the trust to come back with this knowing that some will vilify him again?
Martin: It was of course hard to watch some of the media portray my son as the bad guy and paint his character for the world to judge. But we knew who he was. We knew he was nothing of the sort. We knew Trayvon inside and out, so when people wrote all these things about who our son apparently was, they didn’t know him. We opened our doors to America and when that happens, people are free to bring in their own perceptions. The thing for us was that the message remained more important than our feelings about that side of the pond. We already knew that there would be ugly points of view. Some had our side and others chose to see things differently and we understood that. It’s why talking about this Rest in Power is so important. We’re able to give a more honest side to how we felt as parents and how the world treated our son and the many who suffered and still suffer. But do we find trust in the media? We’ve never really trusted the media and we still in many ways don’t. What we do trust is that most good people can see the truth in what truly happened.
You know, most would succumb to the anger of it all. I’m speaking purely as a black man that has been through certain things myself, so I've got to ask: Where do you guys find the strength to see things in this manner?
Where do we find our strength? Well, I’m a God-fearing person and we rest a lot of our pains on him. Our faith in God helps in maintaining our character without giving into the rage. Yes, we still feel angry, and yes, it still feels fresh in my mind like a pain that will never go away. But it's our strong conviction in our faith that will keep us going.
Fulton: It also helps that we have a supporting cast of people who are like-minded in that way as well. We go to church and we place our faith in God, but we also try to make sure we practice self-care away from that. When everyone is gone, when the pastor isn’t there or the church members leave, and the friends and family disappear, it’s important to know how to bring yourself back by yourself from those very low lows. It’s what I’ve often reminded Trayvon of. And for us, we found our strength through the word (Bible). It’s the main tool that keeps darkness from overcoming us. We have a conviction to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other children like Trayvon so it’s important that we stay strong and standing for the cause.
That’s actually a great thing about the doc. It’s not entirely about Trayvon. It’s also a critique of America as a whole. From the media, the jury process, and the way people of color are portrayed. How important was this not just for your son, but for everyone’s son or daughter?
Martin: It's very important. This issue of racial profiling and an unfair justice system when it comes to people of color has been happening long before Trayvon. The documentary is meant to be educational in that way. We hope people can learn to not accept that when your child is shot in a wrongful manner, that you shouldn’t just take it in silence and deal with it going forward. We all have the right to speak up for our children. This isn’t back in the day when some of us as black people would be afraid to speak up. Through Trayvon’s tragedy, we are reminded of the pattern that many black Americans have had to live through, but on a much more public scale.
And one of the positives you could say came out of this was the growing rise of awareness and protest that extended beyond Trayvon. I was affected in similar ways. What does it mean to know that this helped shift the conversation?
It meant a lot. Social media played a huge part in getting this story out there. Then came the grassroots movement with the hoodie march, but all of that was made possible through social media. We contribute a lot to the people who spread the right information about who our son was and how he was the victim in all this. But to be honest, we need to move away from a conversation. We’ve been having this same conversation since the 60s and farther back then that. It’s time to make change at the voting ballots and with policy changes. This docuseries isn’t about pushing a conversation necessarily; it’s about pushing a need for actual change.
Well, I've got to ask then. We got a guy in the White House that doesn’t seem to have any interest in moving things forward. Do you have any faith that significant change can happen with the current administration?
Absolutely not. As you can see, this administration has done very little toward the work that we’ve been attempting. Like you mentioned about that guy in the White House, to this day, it still surprises me that a man can sit in that seat, say whatever terrible thing he wants, and still be the president of the United States. What I actually see is the opposite being true where this administration has really pushed people to want to go out and commit insane acts. Little has changed, but this administration seems to be set in the idea that we should move backward. So no, I don’t see any change happening with this administration, whatsoever.
So what’s that piece of hope or lesson that you’d want most for people to take from this documentary given the current state of things?
Martin: We’d want people to be receptive of the cold hard facts. This was a baseless and senseless killing. It’s something that’s repeated across our entire country. You can sit back with your hands in your pockets believing that racism doesn’t exist, but we’re attempting to show the truth, that it’s alive and well. When you look at it from today's view, not much has changed. We want to continue to be an instrument of that change because we made a vow that we’d uphold Trayvon’s legacy and everything that it represents.
I know you’ve done this before Sybrina, but describe Trayvon as he was and still is.
Fulton: Trayvon’s a person that loved the holidays, he loved football, and he absolutely loved his airplanes because he dreamed of becoming a pilot and an engineer. He loved to go horseback riding, loved his Adidas, his Levi’s jeans, and loved watching reruns of Martin. He loved to build things and take them apart. And his favorite subject was math. He just loved life.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.