Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?Locarno Film Festival 2017
Travis Wilkerson has to do a lot with a little in this visually inventive, melancholy personal document of his great-grandfather S E Branch, a white racist who murdered a black man called Bill Spann in Dothan just over 70 years ago. Wilkerson wishes to investigate the murder, the murderer and the murdered. What follows is a frustrating, incomplete exploration of a mute Southern Alabama town, an awkward family past and an eradicated black experience – answers are hidden, silence is paramount, obfuscation exists everywhere. This becomes the dominant theme: how white privilege maintains itself while subordinating black memory and history.
Inspired by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin and the former’s subsequent acquittal, the filmmaker ably shows the contemporary relevance of a murder that happened almost three-quarters of a century ago. Despite the title, there’s no ambiguity regarding the killer. The precise circumstances of the incident remain unclear, however, and the life and legacy of the victim are largely unknown. Wilkerson hits plenty of dead ends in his search for clarity. Documents cease to be. People don’t know, won’t talk or find his queries distasteful and unnecessary. One aunt is a prominent local white supremacist, a woman who has mournfully fallen into a mindset of false grievance and prejudice. Her letter to Wilkerson is a stunning example of politeness and deceit. Subsequently, our narrator feels threatened by strangers around town and assumes he’s being followed. The despicable extent of Branch’s behaviour is gradually revealed, while a picture of Spann remains infuriatingly opaque. The story of the murderer can be pieced together, but not one of the murdered.
Wilkerson’s narration can sometimes feel overwrought – the voiceover slightly too studied, the pauses too emphasised. But different art forms effectively break up the narrative. The gospel singalong interludes, imploring the audience to name black victims, give the film great political potency. Some shots in sepia tint and of darkened skies are suitably ominous, reminiscent of early 90s grunge videos. But the sense of political injustice remains central, with Wilkerson’s guilt and despair ever present. Regardless that his conclusions stem from omission rather than discovery, the director has produced an urgent polemical work.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? does not have a UK release date yet.
Watch the trailer for Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? here: