Ten years after the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, we highlight six documentaries that take a look at heartrending moments in the history of race in America.
While we usually write about Paramount+ as a great destination for entertainment, it's also an excellent resource for learning more about U.S. and world history, breaking news, and sports. For Black History Month, we've been highlighting talented performers, classic films, and African American veterans from the entertainment industry.
Paramount+ offers a wealth of documentary stories about the African American experience in American history—including very recent history—made by gifted filmmakers, so we're turning the spotlight on six outstanding examples. They range in length from a multipart, six-episode series to a 15-minute short film.
Fair warning: Many of the stories these documentaries tell are not for the faint of heart. But they're all well told and all worth the time time spent watching.
Watch all six of these documentaries on Paramount+.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story (Six-Part Series)
Black History Month this year marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded on the night of February 26, 2012, when Trayvon Martin encountered George Zimmerman on a quiet street in Sanford, Florida. Over the course of six hour-long episodes, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story looks at the events of that night, the key legal issues in the trial of George Zimmerman, and the impact of the shooting and the verdict on the grieving family, the state of Florida, and the nation.
17 Blocks (96 min.)
The long-form documentary 17 Blocks put cameras in the home—and directly in the hands—of one African American family living in the area of Washington, D.C., known as Southeast (close to the U.S. Capitol) and followed the course of their lives for a 20-year period. Adopting some elements of cinema verité and inheriting the legacy of early television attempts at documenting American life (think of the pioneering and problematic An American Family), the film condenses two decades of everyday moments into just over an hour and a half. The result is an intimate portrait of celebrations, frustrations, and the extreme trials that come from tragic moments of loss.
R.I.P. T-Shirts (30 min.)
Also set in the Washington, D.C., metro area, this documentary focuses on a T-shirt shop owner just outside of the city who receives commissions to create wearable tributes from the families and friends, mostly in the Black community, of those who have died violent deaths. R.I.P. T-Shirts offers a unique view of the aftermath of gun violence through the eyes of those left behind to grieve.
Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance (28 min.)
A painting of Breonna Taylor
Best Screen Grab/Paramount+
When 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13, 2020, during a police raid on her home, the circumstances of her death re-opened deep wounds and exposed longstanding divisions about race and justice in the U.S. In her film Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance, award-winning director Dawn Porter looks at how the art world responded to Taylor's death by using art not only as a form of protest, but as a space to heal.
St. Louis Superman (27 min.)
Filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan created the Oscar-nominated documentary St. Louis Superman to tell the story of Bruce Franks Jr., a battle rapper from Ferguson, Missouri, and his journey from activism to elected office in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. This story captures the triumph of Franks' securing a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives as well as the challenges he faced advocating for the needs of a constituency vastly different from those of his elected peers. The film also tackles the long-lasting impact of personal, violent trauma on Franks' mental and physical health beyond his time in office.
Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day (15 min.)
While Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day may be the shortest of these six documentaries, it is arguably the hardest to watch. The 15-minute documentary revisits not just the 4,000 lynchings of African Americans that took place in the U.S. between 1880 and 1968, but a part of that history not often remembered—the staging of these events as public spectacle and entertainment. This is a revealing look at how commemorative postcards, which became a popular souvenir of these staged executions, were later used by activists as compelling documentary evidence in gaining public support to end the practice.
This last short feature, and the other five above, may present the viewer with challenging images of American life, but like all well-made art, they offer extraordinary opportunities to see a world beyond our immediate, individual experiences, and judge it for ourselves. Don't miss the opportunity!