The momentum of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?  is sustained by repetitions. The film is directed by Travis Wilkerson, and it’s ostensibly an investigative one: The filmmaker’s intention, as stated in his opening narration, is to research and unveil a murder that was committed by his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, in 1946. The murder took place in Branch’s own place of business, a grocery store located in Dothan, Alabama. The victim was Bill Spann, an African-American man. And Branch—who was white, as is Wilkerson—was never convicted of the crime, despite the fact that charges were filed. The director narrates his journey through Alabama, his native state, but we don’t see him in the frames themselves. What we do see—in addition to landscape photography, archival material, and a few interview segments—are those repetitions: specific images which repeat within the film’s structure (we return to some of them more than four or five times), as well as clips that literally repeat on screen (when shown, they play over and over again—they’re listed in the credits as “loops”).
The contents of these images and loops vary greatly. Some are in black and white, others are tinted red. One loop features a few moments of 8mm footage of S.E. Branch himself. One features Branch’s wife, and Wilkerson’s great-grandmother, “Mama Jeanie.” One features shots of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird . One documents the road to Attalla, Alabama—where civil rights activist William Lewis Moore was killed by a white supremacist in 1963—as seen from the dashboard of what is presumably Wilkerson’s vehicle. Folk musician Phil Ochs wrote a song about that particular crime, “William Moore”—and it’s also played repeatedly throughout Did You Wonder, another loop contributing to the structure. The title is utilized similarly: Wilkerson’s film is separated into chapters, each beginning with an image of the “road to Attalla”, and with a few words of the title superimposed over the road. Bookending each of those chapters is yet another loop: a lyric video for Janelle Monae and Wondaland Record’s “Hell You Talmbout”, wherein the names of African-Americans murdered by police are chanted, repeatedly, in protest (“Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, won’t you say his name?”) .
These chapters, or movements, play out with a precisely metered rhythm. One of the movements, loosely remembered, might be organized something like this: First a verse of “Hell You Talmbout” is played, with the names and lyrics emblazoned on screen. We then cut to the road, reddened, with the title superimposed. From there Wilkerson continues narrating his journey toward unveiling whatever facts may remain about the life and death of Bill Spann. As each chapter progresses, Wilkerson continues through the state, starting from tiny counties on its southern end—including Dothan, Cottonwood, and Abbeville—then driving up the aforementioned road toward Attalla. In each location, and in each chapter, he searches for information related to the murder of Spann, conducts interviews toward that purpose, and then inevitably get sidetracked by the larger history of white supremacy in the American south. During one movement, the interview subject is civil rights activist and local politician Ed Vaughn, who can tell Wilkerson about the segregated medical facility that Spann was most likely sent to after the shooting (the Moody Hospital, in Dothan). But Vaughn also details his own family’s history in the fight against white supremacy and racialized violence—his grandfather would help at-risk African-Americans to escape klan strongholds, doing so by way of a route through Abbeville. That note regarding Abbeville will lead us, in a later movement, to a larger digression about Rosa Parks’ history as a radical activist, one which goes back to the early 1940s—which also means detailing the way her radical past has been systematically unwritten from the history of the civil rights movement—which also means considering, in a more general sense, the way that our country and our culture has constantly worked to blot out or rewrite black history—which then connects us back to the life of Bill Spann, and the complete lack of information available regarding him or his family, which is a fate very far removed from that of the well-documented Wilkerson family. What’s created in these pathways is a spiderweb of American history: the editing creates ties between the people, the architecture, the landscapes, the songs, the archival footage, the historical records, the institutional prejudices… by the end of the film, “William Moore” and “Hell You Talmbout” seem to have almost met in the middle, along with the title itself, as though the loops had been roped into a knot. Anyway, back in this movement, Wilkerson cuts from Vaughn’s interview to the Moody Hospital itself, once again invoking the past—then he cuts into the next verse from “Hell You Talmbout,” dropping us right back into the present (and just before the next chapter begins this structure anew). What this accomplishes is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced at the movies recently—the rhythm of the film itself becomes a chant of its own, one with sounds and images that you may anticipate or internalize, just as you would a verse.
There’s real elegance in the way this structure comes together. And that elegance is something you can perceive Wilkerson struggling with. His film clearly emerges from the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement: that hashtag was first used following the acquittal of the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin; and it was the death of Martin, Wilkerson narrates, that “remind[ed] me of the family myth”. But the film has one true subject, beyond lives, deaths, or movements: that subject is whiteness. And so you can almost feel the movie wavering at times, uncomfortable with the implications it reaches—as though it recognizes the moral and ethical frailty of its own existence, and that frailty has bled into the frames themselves (the red tints could also be called stains.) That’s perhaps clearest during a segment in Cottonwood, Alabama, which historically has been well-known within the state as a safe haven for white supremacists (Wilkerson even claims having been run out of that town while filming). There we see the trees of a Cottonwood forest in black-and-white, while Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” plays on the soundtrack. The implications of this juxtaposition are one matter, and are clear enough. But what’s also clear is that the juxtaposition grants a sort of Gothic beauty to the scene—and it’s that beauty which you suspect, or perhaps you hope, that Wilkerson distrusts most. Moments later a small boxy clip of Billie Holiday herself, seen in low-resolution, is unceremoniously spliced into the middle of the frame. It’s almost as though it had been copy-and-pasted over Wilkerson’s rigorous composition. And its inclusion changes the image—it becomes, quite pointedly, an inelegant one. What I see occurring in this sequence, and throughout this film, is a reckoning with historical culpability, and with privilege as well—and it’s a reckoning that manages to go all the way up to the film’s own production, and cross into its aesthetic. At one point, Wilkerson’s camera looks at an unmarked grave, the kind that Bill Spann was almost surely buried under after he was murdered. “I filmed the graveyard with an expensive camera,” Wilkerson intones. “I was paid to do it.”
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? recently played at the Camden International Film Festival, and will play at the New York Film Festival this weekend. At CIFF, which exclusively shows nonfiction works, Did You Wonder was exhibited in the form of a traditional film. When it first premiered at Sundance in January, it took a different form altogether: Wilkerson sat to the right of the screen, personally deploying the loops and audio clips himself, and reading the film’s narration live. The director “performed” the film in this manner a few more times at festivals early in 2017, before premiering this current ‘recorded’ version at more recent screenings (Wilkerson, it should be noted, serves not only as director but also as the film’s photographer, editor, and producer). In this recorded version, there are still vestiges of the confrontational manner of a live performance—certain lines in the narration stick out that way, for better or for worse, like “this is not a white savior story, this is a white nightmare story,” or, with regards to Harper Lee’s original Mockingbird, “her [story] is liberal—mine is radical.” But the overall structure, rhythm, and aesthetic of the piece feel based in cinema—the film is made from the simplest, and most classical, of the form’s techniques (tints, superimpositions, intertitles).
Since it was first performed in January, the film has apparently been updated. Reviews from Sundance noted that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman went unacknowledged in that presentation, but here Wilkerson uses that text—an early, unpublished draft of Mockingbird, featuring a characterization of Finch as a more typically racist and prejudiced man—to further his own ideas about the formation of a whitewashed American history. His images of Peck’s Finch are tinted blood red, and Wilkerson’s narration makes his own interpretation of Lee’s material very clear: He sees no coincidence in the fact that the canonized version of the character—the one that got published—is the one that represents kindhearted white liberalism. Given the slow crawl of progress, this is a story that could be updated at any given time. And that very fact is what gives the film such a profoundly affecting sense of anguish and guilt. For the subjects it documents—the systematic integration of white supremacy into American life, the effect it has on the histories we record, and our personal culpability in its continuation—continue unabated, like the repeating clips that never reach their resolution. The loops continue on.