The problems with Travis Wilkerson’s well-intentioned yet maddeningly self-focused documentary begin with the title, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” No actually, we never wonder who fired the gun, and neither does he: on the immediate level, it was his white supremacist great-grandfather S.E. Branch, who killed Bill Spann, an unarmed African-American man in 1946 Alabama. On a more general level, the “who” can be expanded to an entire country that’s become pathological in the way it continues to sweep under the carpet an ongoing history of unindicted white-against-black murders. Wilkerson doesn’t mean to suggest ambiguity with his title, since no one questions the identity of the culprit, but it is regrettably indicative of his navel-gazing focus on family skeletons, combined with a deeply annoying tendency to sensationalize the obvious.
Designed as a piece of agitprop, “Did You Wonder” is, for all intents and purposes, a cold case murder mystery, cooked up with historical asides to give Spann’s killing some background. Suffused with a Southern Gothic vibe and always accompanied by Wilkerson’s sententious voiceover, the documentary makes fitful attempts to contextualize the shooting within the broader murderous history of American racism, but ultimately is far more interested in expunging the director’s own sense of inherited taint. Although made and premiered pre-Charlottesville, the film will undoubtedly benefit from the soul-searching discussions currently permeating the nation’s zeitgeist.
Wilkerson’s past documentaries — “An Injury to One” and “Who Killed Cock Robin?” — focus on his other home state, Montana, but the director also has roots in Dothan, in south-eastern Alabama. “Trust me when I tell you this isn’t another white savior story,” he tediously intones at the start. “This is a white nightmare story.” (Why on earth would anyone have thought this was a “white savior” story?) Returning to Dothan after 20 years, he’s come back to question family members about great-grandpa Branch, a nasty figure too foul even for a Tennessee Williams play. Branch owned a general store, and it was there that he shot and killed Spann, a 46-year-old married African-American who time has swallowed up.
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Photos and 8mm home movies show Branch as an imposing man, the kind who takes up all the physical and psychological space in a room. Abusive, racist and certain of his immunity from prosecution in Jim Crow’s South, Branch is likely to have killed more than one black man in his time. Wilkerson’s mother and aunt ultimately open up about their troubled memories of their grandfather, but their older sister, a confirmed white supremacist, staunchly champions Branch and his reputation in a letter (she ignored requests to be filmed). Elsewhere, the director is made to feel uncomfortable by communities unwilling to have anyone investigate crimes that, like Spann himself, have been buried in unmarked graves.
Perhaps the most maddening element of “Did You Wonder” is the way Wilkerson tries to turn everything into a mystery, ignoring that history is and has always been a form of collective amnesia. That Rosa Parks’ significant work as an investigator for the NAACP is less well-known than her later defiance of the “whites only” bus rule shouldn’t come as a surprise, even though the perception of her as a passive resister desperately needs correcting. Bringing her into the picture, together with loquacious civil rights activist Ed Vaughn, is meant to give voice to those in Alabama who heroically confronted injustice, yet the film is overwhelmed by poisonous intersections, so uncertain where to turn that it devolves into a far less interesting attempt to amputate family demons.
Especially aggravating is that Wilkerson claims to have done everything possible to locate Spann’s descendants, even hiring a private dick, yet he shows none of this work. Did he go to all the black churches in the county? Did he question all the longtime African-American residents he could find? If so, why aren’t we seeing that? It would have given the documentary a true sense of black lives in the region rather than what we get: one black death, kind of placed in context, with Vaughn and one African-American woman who lives next door to Branch’s former store acting as the lone voices of an otherwise stifled community.
Wilkerson’s flat, ultra-slow vocal cadence, constantly punctuated with long pauses for effect, comes across as pretentious rather than authoritative, or just plain angry. He sounds like he’s narrating a noir from the 1950s, where everyday occurrences like a thunderstorm are taken as a sign or premonition. In keeping with the agitprop flavor (also evident in “An Injury to One”), he splashes text on screen during a repeated song, “Say My Name,” by far the best thing in the film, which tenaciously insists on naming black men and women gunned down in recent years with no justice served. Spann’s name deserves to be added to the list, as do the tens of thousands of others, many buried with no markers; making their lives matter more than their deaths is a considerably more difficult challenge, and giving voice to their names is only the start.