On 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid carrying a bag of Skittles, after having been instructed by a police officer on the telephone not to take any action to what Zimmerman had perceived as a trespass into a gated community. Martin was living in the community at the time. Two-and-a-half years later, on 11 October 2014, U.S. Marine Joseph Pemberton allegedly asphyxiated Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman, in a hotel room in the Philippines. For some time, these deaths and the rash of dissatisfying judicial outcomes to follow spurred a conflaguration of social media activity and protests. But as with all hate crime cases, public outrage settled, and the stories of Martin and Laude quieted from “breaking news” to back page stories, which die slowly amid mercilessly drawn out criminal appeals, civil lawsuits, and partisan deadlock.
Jennfer Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s six-part docuseries Rest in Power:The Trayvon Martin Story, and PJ Raval’s film documentary Call Her Ganda, have undertaken the enormous task of resurrecting the stories of Martin and Laude, reinterpreting each death within historic frameworks of the systemic reasons for hate crimes, and why their stories fade without meaningful changes in civil rights laws.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story
The first installment of Rest in Power—airing on the Paramount Network in July— is a blistering account of the large scale racist and neoconservative American structures responsible for Martin’s murder. Sweeping aerials of the “Twin Lakes Retreat”— an immaculate gated community littered with “no trespassing” signs, which Trayvon’s mother wryly noted was not particularly friendly to her family— are juxtaposed with soundbites of Zimmerman’s several police phone calls prior to his killing of Martin, where he incessantly complained of black children running around the neighborhood. A photo of Zimmerman carrying a rifle, and another of him posing in front of a Confederate flag, quickly transitions to a press shot of Jeb Bush signing the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law with Marion Hammer—one of the National Rifle Association’s most influential lobbyists—standing by his side.
The interplay between “Stand Your Ground”, red zoning, and the several weeks it took for a finding of probable cause to charge Zimmerman with murder is well-explained, and should evoke some interesting questions on prioritization of socioeconomic considerations over the law during hate crime investigations. A reporter notes that the legal term “Stand Your Ground” was formerly known as “The Castle Doctrine”, thereby evoking a parallel to the gated community which Zimmerman sought to protect. A healthy discussion about the controversial new law establishes that a property owner—in Zimmeran’s case not his home, but a gated community— can successfully demonstrate an affirmative defense against murder charges if he can establish his refusal to retreat or abstain from killing a trespasser was based on his reasonably perceived threat of death or grave physical injury.
While “stand your ground” is an affirmative defense requiring trial evidence to be proven, “probable cause” is a standard of reasonableness justifying an arrest. Yet, in Zimmerman’s case, the two standards seemed to be reversed, whereas the police struggled to find “probable cause” in a case where a man admitted to firing a gun at an unarmed teenager, while the “stand your ground” justification was initially found satisfactory based seemingly on Zimmerman’s word alone (and a nine question lie-detector test void of any questions involving possible racial prejudice).
One of the wonderful cinematic qualities of Rest in Power is that it builds up to this heinous legal anomaly on an emotional level, sifting between pained interviews with Martin’s parents (shot in close-ups which linger on their tearful eyes), and initial police press statements, which vaguely discuss their inability to find “probable cause”. A heroic sub-plot emerges within this framework involving the Martin family’s civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who begins to strategize a national media campaign to pressure local authorities to charge Zimmerman. Here, the film begins to ferment with rapidly cut images of reports and nationwide protests, capturing justice as a function of a swarming outraged citizenry.
Looming behind Crump’s successful strategy is the distressing conclusion that had he not been so successful in creating media uproar, it’s possible that a finding of probable cause as a simple function legal interpretation would not have been found. The episode’s big reveal comes near the end, where a second 911 tape from another resident of the community listening to the altercation is played repeatedly. The episode’s footage, now slowed to a halt as compared to the episode’s fast pace, painstakingly portrays Martin’s parents listen to the tapes. Through their eyes, difficult questions form of whether the literal meaning of “probable cause” has any bearing whatsoever when pitted against other retrograde socioeconomic factors that linger in America’s cultural ethos like a seemingly incurable cancer.
Notably, these powerful revelations are unearthed in just the first episode of five, thereby auguring Rest in Power’s prospects to be in the same sphere as OJ Simpson:Made in America. However, it’s noteworthy that the docuseries will premiere in a televised format, likely to be broken up by commercials and to be delivered in installments rather than as a single piece of work.
I could have sat through the entirety of Rest in Power‘s four-and-a-half hours, in a pitch dark theater, enduring an eruption of images and sounds over a large screen format that appropriately captures the swarm of racial injustices that blanket plague the entire United States. If political unrest is a key ingredient to revolution, one can’t help but wonder if such risible political issues should be consumed piecemeal, and in the comfort of one’s own home. Even still, Rest in Power should prove to be one of the best-constructed and important documentaries of 2018.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story rating: 10
Call Her Ganda
Call Her Ganda, which will continue to tour film festivals after its premiere at Tribeca, doesn’t have the same explosive sense of urgency as does Rest in Power, instead resigning itself to a languidly told retrospective of Jennifer Laude’s homicide, which meshes poignantly with the equally torpid, creaky judicial wheels of the U.S.-Filipino military industrial complex.
Call her Ganda utilizes a triangular narrative structure to dissect the two-year aftermath following Laude’s homicide. Laude’s mother, Julita, presents the perspective of a parent mourning her child’s death first in tears, and then through her desire for a maximum criminal sentence against Pemberton for the charge of murder. The most cutting scene with Julita is when she recounts, without a trace of surprise or anger, how a US attorney from Georgetown visited her to offer $90k for her to agree to indemnify the United States of any responsibility for Pemberton’s crime. In a sense, the meeting was just another day in the life of a country colonized by the United States for more than a hundred years.
Pemberton was convicted of homicide as instead of murder, and moreover, received a drastically reduced sentence of six- to ten-years from a Filipino regional court due to mitigating circumstances based partially on Laude’s alleged failure to reveal herself as a transgender female. This information is shared about halfway through the film, which creates the challenge of creating narrative stakes for the rest of the film outside of explanations and laments of injustice.
Raval handles this task with mixed results. There’s excess coverage of the Laude family’s lawyer, Virgie Suarez, who continually opines about the lack of due process under Filipino Law, due to the various procedural interferences from the Visitors Fighting Agreement (VFA). The VFA is presented through historic footage and explanatory interview segments as a US imperialist inspired law which provides the US military with jurisdiction over visiting personnel charged with crimes including a remarkably low one year statute of limitations for legal proceedings in a Filipino court, and US jurisdictional authority to enforce a sentence in a US military compound. It’s an ironclad agreement with little hope for exceptions, and the film’s continued emphasis of this point comes across more as a repetitive textual argument about imperialist history rather than an emotionally charged cinematic treatment of LGBTQ hate crimes.
The film’s most successful narrative is from Buzzfeed’s transgender reporter Meredith Taluson’s reportage of the case, which was instrumental in drawing national attention to the issue of hate crimes against transgender women. When the camera follows Meredith as she investigates Laude’s story from both the United States and the Philippines, Call Her Ganda takes on a sense of a personal emotional journey, which flirts with the uneasy revelation that Meredith may be lonelier in her own country than when she is with the Laude family.
At home, Meredith watches as her Buzzfeed articles are met with a rash of hate tweets (deftly splattered across the film screen) “justifying” Laude’s homicide, and attacking Meredith as well. Later in the film, when Laude visits Pemberton’s hometown in Massachusetts, her plangent voiceover addresses succession of shots of cold modular high school structures and secluded suburban homes; she asks if Pemberton was ever taught how to interact with the LBGT community, and if this homogeneous environment can make room to people of different genders. When Laude asks a town resident if he was aware of Joseph Pemberton, she receives her answer.
Call Her Ganda‘s greatest accomplishment is revealing the common suffering between Meredith and the Filipino transgender community, all while a US military ship permanently looms, seemingly indifferent to the lack of egalitarian and democratic ideals at its host port, or its country of origin.
Call Her Ganda rating: 8