The documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? begins with a baritone voice intoning the following credo over pin-drop silence: “Trust me when I tell you this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” The voice belongs to director Travis Wilkerson, whose documentaries are often self-narrated, and here, sounding as though it belongs in a scare-mongering PSA, the voice immediately dispels any expectations of casual entertainment or purely pedagogical history lesson. In directly requesting the audience’s trust, Wilkerson initiates a not-particularly-inviting proposition for the viewer, and specifically the white American viewer: Follow my lead, the voice seems to say, and my conclusions will make you uncomfortable.
Though his confrontational narration is central to Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Wilkerson is almost completely unseen throughout. The film trains its gaze upon a largely forgotten incident: the 1946 murder of the African-American Bill Spann by white grocery store owner S.E. Branch in Dothan, Alabama. Branch was Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, so the crime is personal, and thus the filmmaker’s grave, occasionally scolding tone is aimed as much at a white America that’s seen an unfortunate mainstreaming of latent tribalism of late as it is to himself and his extended family. While precious few records of Spann’s life remain, Branch is memorialized in family photos, home movies, and official town archives, an unjust discrepancy that provides the impetus for Wilkerson’s research project, which involves ambling across the heart of Dixie in search of clues, materials, testimonies—really, anything—that might help restore some dignity to the murdered man’s life.
This is the primary, and certainly well-intentioned, angle of Wilkerson’s documentary. The other, more disconcerting angle is an upshot of this macro undertaking, and it concerns the filmmaker’s gradually accruing disgust at his own ambition, knowing full well that the seeming nobility of his goal to resurrect Spann’s memory comes perilously close to a legacy of representation that foregrounds the sacrifices of white men in elevating black lives. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, arguably the most popular and influential purveyor of this objective, serves as a rhetorical counterpoint on multiple occasions throughout the film, and while the citation is transparently self-serving—“Harper’s story is liberal; mine is radical,” Wilkerson asserts—the reasoning is impactful. This is especially true when footage of Gregory Peck nervously idling in the courtroom from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation is looped and tinted blood-red, an effect that empties a white icon of his purpose, filling the void with an overtone of violence.
Such repetitions become an integral part of this documentary’s structure, which, in homage to the protest songs that crucially weave through its narrative (Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Phil Ochs’s “William Moore”), adopts a form akin to music. The film’s equivalent of a chorus, repeated four times throughout, is something of a call-and-response bit, setting bold textual callouts to recent black victims of white aggression—Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and so on—against Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a thundering backbeat that re-enters the soundtrack at sudden, unannounced junctures.
The declamatory nature of these interludes extends into Wilkerson’s style of narration, which similarly reiterates certain phrases and names. It’s also there in the film’s insistent editing patterns, whereby still shots of significant locations—like the hollowed-out Dothan grocery store, the scene of the crime—are lingered on at length and archival scenes of family bliss are replayed unceremoniously until they’re drained of warmth. Didacticism becomes a critical means to an end here, since the underlying implication of the film is that American history’s unnerving cyclicality can only begin to crack through a self-conscious reckoning with the past and its hard evidence—that unsavory truths must be recalled as vigorously as they’ve been covered up.
In conducting this filmic exorcism, Wilkerson generates a wealth of incidental material that falls outside the purview of Spann’s story. He reconnects with his estranged aunts and finds that one has embraced white supremacy and Confederate mythmaking, which in turn prompts a risky digression to the Klan-friendly town of Cottonwood and an extract of a heinous broadcast from one “Southern Nationalist Network.” Another section of the film—or verse, we might say—challenges Wilkerson’s centrality in the story’s telling by spotlighting civil rights activist Ed Vaughn, who’s granted considerable time to elaborate on his own experiences of oppression in Alabama as well as those of a larger network of regional radicals that included Rosa Parks.
Given these intriguing byways, it’s hard not to yearn for an expansion of this project, and yet the film’s concision is also a byproduct of its attempted self-effacement. Noticeably uncomfortable with the intermittently tasteful construction of his own work (at one point he calls attention to the fact that he’s shooting an unmarked grave with “an expensive camera”), Wilkerson takes every opportunity to ground his filmmaking in concrete realities that may not always be conducive to easy viewing, awkwardly superimposing a low-resolution photo over an otherwise appealingly composed image or leaving certain scenes bereft of any auditory embellishment. The film’s final movement directly quotes Chantal Akerman’s thematically analogous Sud in packaging an act of remembrance as a seemingly endless traveling shot. As with the Peck footage, Wikerson tints the shot red, making clear that we’re on a road that embodies the plague of racism itself.