Film Review: Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Travis Wilkerson’s ruminative documentary brings home the filmmaker’s preoccupation with the confluence of individual and institutional violence in an exceptionally personal manner.
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Beginning a two-week engagement at New York City’s Film Forum, Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? brings home the documentary filmmaker’s recurrent preoccupation with the confluence of individual and institutional violence in an exceptionally personal manner. Prompted by the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, Wilkerson’s mother e-mails him a news article: On an October night in 1946, the director’s great-grandfather, S. E. Branch, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann on the premises of Branch’s grocery store in Dothan, Alabama. Although he was initially accused of first-degree murder, these charges seem to have been dropped somewhere along the way, and Branch effectively got away with the killing scot-free.

And so the filmmaker sets out to reconstruct a family history beset by secrecy and violence, though his angle of approach proves to be far from straightforward—partly, one suspects, owing to the paucity of documentary evidence still extant after all these years: a few scattered news clippings, Spann’s death certificate and some old home movies. Wilkerson keeps viewers on their toes by shifting from ruminative personal essay, delivered in his suitably sepulchral noirish growl, to a more conventional interview format that crucially permits other voices, other perspectives to impinge upon his somber narrative. An extended monologue from activist and historian Ed Vaughn provides invaluable insight into the racism rife within Dothan’s various institutions (schools, hospitals, local factories), as well as the larger struggle for civil rights in the region.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? ultimately takes on the rhythmic structure of the protest music that Wilkerson invokes throughout the film: Black-and-white montages set to Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” recur like a refrain, inviting viewers to speak the names of victims of racially motivated violence. Phil Ochs’s plangent “William Moore” introduces a lengthy aside about the 1963 murder of the eponymous protest marcher on the roadside in Attalla, Alabama. Then there’s a truly surreal sequence, almost worthy of David Lynch himself, where the camera focuses on a grove of cottonwood trees, while Billie Holliday sings an eerie backwards-masked rendition of “Strange Fruit” in a tiny square in the center of the frame. Such experimental flourishes might not do a whole lot to deepen or broaden our understanding of the fraught issues at hand, but they work quite nicely when it comes to keeping viewers unsettled.

Even more disquieting are the references to Harper Lee that Wilkerson uses to bookend the film. The first suggests simple counterpoint, all the ways in which Lee’s fable of the “secular saint” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird differs from his own “white nightmare story.” Near the end, Wilkerson invokes Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the notorious “first draft” and moral obverse of Mockingbird, which offers a far more scarifying and disillusioned vision of life in small-town Alabama.

There are no “white saviors” in Wilkerson’s similarly caustic worldview. So it’s hardly surprising that, over the course of the film, the director admits to a growing discomfort with his own role as intermediary for the life history of the almost-unremembered Bill Spann. This accounts for the “two families” leitmotif to which Wilkerson repeatedly returns: a series of increasingly bitter quasi-poetic reflections on the stark differences that separate his family and whatever might remain of Bill Spann’s. The seemingly interminable dash-cam tracking shot along the dusty byways of Alabama—tinted, like the footage of Gregory Peck culled from To Kill a Mockingbird, an ominous blood-red—seems to suggest that, unless something radically changes in the structures of power that dominate us all, we may be driving toward the vanishing point of our own collective history.

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