While many news-oriented documentaries attempt to maintain a certain level of professional journalistic distance from their subjects, director Travis Wilkerson (An Injury To One) has taken a much different approach with Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a probing and flat-out incendiary look at the not-so-secret history of his family and its roots in the most racist part of Southern culture in Alabama.
As someone who marched in protest after Trayvon Martin’s killer Geroge Zimmerman was acquitted, Wilkerson can barely contain his outrage and curiosity when he digs into the family folklore involving a great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who shot Bill Spann, a black man, in cold blood in 1946 and had first-degree murder charges dismissed without much discussion. Beyond a couple of newspaper articles about the incident, the filmmaker has a tough time tracking down any details on the killing, either though public records or through other family members, including one elderly aunt who is neck deep in the white nationalist movement.
Moving from investigative-journalism-style reporting to more surreal examinations of To Kill A Mockingbird and speculation about unseen forces that are curtailing his search for any shred of evidence, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is not simply an unblinking tale of a man’s search for the truth but it’s also a terrifying profile of a man slipping slowly into paranoia. Acting as his own narrator, you can almost see Wilkerson pressed against the microphone, seething, teeth clenched with rage, while talking about his own family, as well as those who simply refuse to help him because “we don’t do that here,” as one city hall clerk tells him.
Not that this case doesn’t deserve the attention, but there are moments in the movie where Wilkerson lays on the white guilt so thick that it gets in the way of his storytelling. But there’s no denying that the film’s slow transition from being about a man’s murder to being about the deeply engrained, systemic racism that protects the guilty and denies victims their essential identity in some cases. A key recurring element to the film involves Wilkerson’s heartbreaking attempt to locate where the dead man is buried. Much of what he puts on screen feels like an exercise in clearing out his brain of so much pain for fear of going insane or being crushed by what he’s unearthing.
Shot in unflinching, stunning black and white, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? takes quite a few side trips, including several that involve acts of great courage in the earliest days of the civil rights movement and others that are far more personal and family oriented. But he always brings it back on target, fueled by his anger at indirectly being on the wrong side of history.
“This isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,” the filmmaker tells us at the top of the film, and there are undoubtedly sections of his journey that resemble the worst kind of nightmare. He doesn’t offer much hope for a better future in the region, which might be the film’s most severe blow. It’s not the most uplifting experience you’ll have in the theater this year, but it will be one of the most essential and unforgettable.
The films opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.