When I first saw Travis Wilkerson’s intense, mesmerizing, and heartbreaking Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it didn’t yet technically count as a film: He narrated the work live and personally cued the images and audio as he proceeded. That felt appropriate, since the movie itself is a family confessional; the director’s personal presence in the room imparted a certain vulnerability and openness. But there was also a confrontational edge to it, too. I’m here facing the truth of my family’s past, Wilkerson seemed to be telling us. When will you confront yours?
That work is now a contained film all its own, and I am happy (happy?) to report that it has lost none of its discomfiting, embittered power. “Trust me when I tell you that this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,” Wilkerson proclaims right at the opening, and he’s not lying. Working his way through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, he tells us about his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, shooting and killing in 1946 a black man by the name of Bill Spann who had come into Branch’s small store.
Branch was originally charged with murder, but got off scot-free. His face can be seen in a couple of pieces of home movie footage that Wilkerson plays repeatedly, at different speeds and in different contexts, juxtaposing it against other footage, or split-screening it, or laying it under other images. Wilkerson recounts his attempts to learn more about the murder and his great-grandfather’s victim. Heading back to Dothan, Alabama, where his mother’s family hails from, he finds very little: a death certificate for Bill Spann, a couple of newspaper articles from the time, and some vague scraps of family lore. (He does, however, learn a bit more about his great-grandfather — none of it good, almost all of it bone-chilling.)
Expanding his investigation, Wilkerson discovers more connections, some tangible, some spiritual. His efforts take him to the nearby town of Abbeville, Rosa Parks’s childhood home, and Cottonwood, where the Ku Klux Klan has deep roots. Everywhere he goes, he tells us, seems to be haunted: the building that was once his great-grandfather’s store; the trees in Cottonwood, from which bodies once hung; the abandoned hospital where Spann died — a place where black patients were treated in the dank basement, and whose door is marked by a giant, rust-gray spot where a man once committed suicide. It’s hard not to experience Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? and not get shivers up your spine — from fear, from anger, and from the beauty of Wilkerson’s filmmaking.
Back at Sundance, Wilkerson’s work made an interesting companion piece to Dee Rees’s Mudbound, which had premiered just days earlier. Did You Wonder, like Mudbound, is about two families, one white and one black. And like that film, it shows how one family takes root and establishes itself through the force of privilege, class, and violence — pushing the other out into the void. Wilkerson has home movies and pictures and interviews from his family — a lifetime of memories and records — but can’t learn anything about Bill Spann. He can locate no relatives, no records aside from a death certificate. He goes searching for the man’s grave, and finds only an unmarked spot in an African-American cemetery where he thinks it might be. It’s as if an entire bloodline has been extinguished.
This is also a movie about haunted places, and Wilkerson’s specters reconnect us with one of the sources of Americans’ fascination with ghost stories — the sense that, beneath our feet and behind our walls, lurks a history filled with horror, hate, and slaughter, and that, if conjured the right way, it might all return some day. “Have you ever been in a place where you feel like something awful happened there?” the director asks upon entering the dim, decrepit building that was once his great-grandfather’s store. He could easily be talking about the whole country.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Directed by Travis Wilkerson
Opens February 28, Film Forum