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'Trayvon Martin' leads wave of racial-justice documentaries

Racial injustice -- focused on the treatment of young African-American men by law enforcement -- is the topic of seve...

Posted: Jul 30, 2018 4:45 PM
Updated: Jul 30, 2018 4:45 PM

Racial injustice -- focused on the treatment of young African-American men by law enforcement -- is the topic of several upcoming documentaries, which together provide an in-depth portrait of the fractured relationship between certain communities and the justice system.

The Paramount Network and BET take the deepest dive with "Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story," a six-episode unscripted series devoted to the 2012 killing and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. The same night, PBS will premiere "Whose Streets?," which documents the aftermath of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo.

Those productions are followed in August by "Sugar Town," a sobering Investigation Discovery documentary about a young man who died while in police custody in Louisiana; and "Crime + Punishment," a spare look at New York city police officers who were penalized for resisting pressure to improve arrest-rate numbers by targeting people of color.

Each project has its merits, but the real impact comes in their collective weight, seeing similar patterns and attitudes reenacted across different regions and jurisdictions.

"Crime + Punishment" is somewhat unique in that it looks at the officers who resisted a policy that their bosses denied even existed. It also highlights some high-profile cases that were a byproduct of those arrests, including Eric Garner's death from a police chokehold in 2014.

"Sugar Town," meanwhile, tells the story of 22-year-old Victor White III, a reverend's son who was fatally shot in the back of a police car. The official story -- that he somehow took his own life, when his hands were cuffed behind him -- immediately prompted suspicion, leading to it being labeled "the Houdini handcuff suicide."

The demand for answers by White's heartbroken family generated national headlines, exposing a pattern of corruption related to the small parish's sheriff's department.

Similarly, the Martin case became a national rallying point, after Zimmerman followed and shot Martin, 17, claiming self-defense at his trial.

The case triggered also debate about Florida's Stand Your Ground Law -- which is back in the headlines, thanks to another shooting, this time of an unarmed man in a parking-lot dispute -- and gave rise to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

As the series notes in painstaking detail, the jury's not-guilty verdict was a byproduct of numerous factors, from the way the defense exploited the image of African-American men as predators to the many missteps by the prosecution. But the filmmakers also take time to humanize Martin, while presenting Zimmerman's history of alerting the police about African-American youths in the neighborhood -- raising issues of racial profiling that were excluded from consideration at trial.

"Racial profiling is all this case is about. That's the entire thing," author Mychal Denzel Smith notes in the film.

Modern means of recording police interactions, including cellphone and dash-cam videos, have played a pivotal role in the evolving coverage of these events, providing visual evidence of abuses that were previously unavailable.

Several of these cases have commanded widespread media coverage, but there's a clear benefit in exploring the issues with greater depth and context, which is often elusive when faced with the vagaries of a fast-moving news cycle.

In a sense, these documentaries -- coupled with other recent ones, such as Ava DuVernay's "13th" and the Oscar-nominated short "Traffic Stop" -- bring to mind the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Watched individually, each offers a different glimpse of the larger problem. It requires taking a step back -- and comparing notes -- to gain perspective on the complete picture.

"Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story" and "Whose Streets?" premiere July 30 at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network/BET and PBS, respectively.

"Sugar Town" airs Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.

"Crime + Punishment" opens in limited theatrical release on Aug. 24.

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