Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? ★★★½

[7]

Originally conceived as a performance piece, Travis Wilkerson's latest leftist remembrance project loses very little in the transition to single-channel video, and it arguably gains the focus that comes along with one sole point of attention. This is also one of Wilkerson's most powerful works -- easily his best since An Injury to One, largely because of the personal stakes involved. Rather than identifying an oppressive bogeyman out in the world, Wilkerson looks inward, interrogating his own family history.

The history in question involves Wilkerson's great-grandfather, aman named S.E. Branch. As shown in family photos and Super-8 footage, Branch was a large, imposing Southern man and, as we learn over the course of Did You Wonder, a terrible bully both within his family and in his immediate environs of Dothan, Alabama. Branch owned a small convenience store, and one day an African-American man by the name of Bill Spann walked in. Branch did not like black people. So he shot Spann and killed him.

Wilkerson explains that Branch was brought in for "questioning" but was never charged, the good-ol'-boy cops most likely Klan members like Branch himself. Spann's body was disposed of. His family never even had a funeral or a marked grave where they could pay their respects. Everyone in Dothan knew better than to inquire about the crime, which was simply erased from public memory.

Wilkerson explains at the start of Did You Wonder, "this is not a white savior story," contrasting his own investigation into the Spann murder with the depiction of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The film implicitly argues that both book and film are part of a white liberalism that disempowers African-Americans under the guise of assistance, by coopting stories not their own. Near the end of the film, Wilkerson announces that he has made his film and concluded his research. "I was paid to do it."

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is in no sense an exorcism of familial ghosts. Rather, it is a sort of materialist seance, using the suppressed memories of Dothan's disenfranchised, along with a secondary, entirely separate set of public records, to reconstitute both the crime and the very existence of Bill Spann. Even as the film foregrounds just how much we will never know about him -- and the surfeit of information we can glean about a white Southern patriarch like Branch -- Wilkerson refuses to allow the man to be defined by silence. Say his name.