This is a white nightmare story.
It’s a provocative title for a murder mystery investigation into documentarian Travis Wilkerson‘s own ancestry: Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? He’s presenting a question before we even sit down and then supplies the answer straight away. The trick, however, is that the question is an abstract and his answer one piece to the puzzle. Rather than concern the central event he’s spent four years researching—the legend of his great grandfather (S.E. Branch) murdering a black customer (Bill Spann) at his store—the title’s query is about racism on the whole. Because Wilkerson knows who fired on Spann, this mission sets out to reveal who fired upon peace. A Phil Ochs lyric eventually supplies the perpetrator and it’s exactly as obvious as you feared.
Based on a live performance, Wilkerson has pretty much put visuals to a spoken word piece with the type of monotone delivery, interview snippets, and repetitive messaging as the journalistic podcasts that have become all the rage of late. I found myself closing my eyes as a result since the visuals he’s chosen are often run on a loop with tangential connection to the words being spoken because anything seems on paper to be better than nothing. But you know what might have been better than that? Wilkerson himself. Why not film his performance so we can look away from the moving PowerPoint presentation and see his eyes and his expressions? Let us witness the subject matter’s power on him as the storyteller rather than our inherent predispositions.
Because let’s be honest: someone like his white nationalist aunt isn’t going to change her mind. If she watches this film at all it’s to know which passages are primed to turn the tables on her nephew being the true hate stirrer. No, those who’ve already opened their eyes to their role in racism and bigotry are the ones seeking this tale of familial divide mirroring that of our country straight down the line to the Civil War. And since Wilkerson doesn’t actually come up with any answers as to why Branch killed Spann (besides the fact he was a well-connected White man who could), those ready to point their fingers at systems they’ve helped sustain are the only ones who will get something out of the experience.
What’s that exactly? Concrete evidence our nation is just as bad as it ever has been. What Wilkerson’s journey into Alabama uncovers is the fact that these nationalists don’t simply hate minorities—they hate everything that allows minorities to exist. That means cultural institutions, allies, the current federal government, and history itself. Wilkerson tells us tales about men following him around towns known for KKK affiliations. He talks about and shows us the Black men and women willing to speak about their lives, America, and trouble despite refusing to go on record as far as the murder his movie is about. The mystery then becomes why something so obvious can be covered up so effectively. And again the answer is easy: racism, fear, and survival.
So he’s drawing lines between the murders that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and those occurring throughout our country’s infamous past. He’s connecting Bill Spann’s homicide to Recy Taylor’s rape to Trayvon Martin’s demise. And he’s doing it from a very personal vantage point that brings his “blood” into the fold (that same “blood” his aunt’s friends want to create a people and land of Dixie for and thus mark him as the enemy despite it). To do so he speaks and reads without letting us see him speak or read and we take him at his word because he has no reason to lie. As compelling as this is to those who understand his point, however, it’s not compelling at all to those who ardently disagree.
I can’t help but question the motivation to take a monologue that should live or die by its electric delivery due to its orator’s first-hand proximity to its words and strip it of that power. Wilkerson has delivered a well-crafted film with experimental qualities that manufactures present-day tension without ever presenting documentation of the danger itself. He shows us the face of a monster smiling with family and brings up a good point that having a recording of him and not of the man he killed epitomizes racism’s hold on our nation. Comparisons to Atticus Finch and his unearthed context through Harper Lee’s second book elucidate his point even if they’re presented to do exactly that. We feel bad for constantly allowing clean surfaces to hide evil intent.
That’s the point as I see it—one I’m not sure we need half the runtime here to acknowledge. Wilkerson is exorcizing some family history and in that regard the film is a resounding success. It’s also a necessary document to remember Bill Spann despite America refusing to do so for too long. Wilkerson does this in response to the answer to the title’s question, that families like his fired the gun and continue firing explicitly (his aunt) and implicitly (those who were fine holding Branch’s actions as “legend” instead of doing something to ensure his vileness was on public record). Wilkerson is absolving himself of demons by calling them by their name. But while that sounds revelatory as a live installation, something gets lost in this translation.
[1-3] A scene from Travis Wilkeron’s “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.