'Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A powerful, problematic meditation on a nearly forgotten killing.

Travis Wilkerson's film/theater hybrid investigates his great-grandfather's killing of a black man in 1946.

An anguished expression of white guilt in the guise of a family-shame detective story, Travis Wilkerson's Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a theatrical/film hybrid, more one-man-show than documentary. Recounting his attempt to learn more about his great-grandfather's killing of a black man in 1946, Wilkerson is a compelling enough guide that it may be some time before the audience starts to wonder if the central mystery is a red herring. The work will likely fare better at experimental theater fests than in film venues, despite some intriguing cinematic effects.

Festival materials described a more involved stage setup, but the performance here found Wilkerson sitting throughout at a small desk, Spalding Gray-style, to the side of the movie screen. He triggered audio loops and samples, but otherwise his performance was limited to reading from a script in a clipped, grave monotone reminiscent of radio-theater artist Joe Frank. He occasionally stopped to let film material be heard, but often spoke over footage that silently set the scene for an anecdote.

Wilkerson began by contrasting the personal story he had to recount with that told in To Kill a Mockingbird. As the performance went on, the comparison would begin to seem odd, but in establishing a mood for this midcentury Southern tale of race relations, it worked: As he played remixed film clips of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the image tinted blood-red and orange, he complained that the "secular saint" Finch is not a real human being. (Wilkerson didn't mention the uglier vision of Finch offered in the controversial sequel Go Set a Watchman.)

Then, showing the angry mob Finch famously stood up to, he brought the reference home: "My great-grandfather would've been one of the members of that lynch mob," he announced, and cut to color home movies of the man, S.E. Branch, who in 1946 shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann. Branch, proprietor of a little store in Dothan, Ala., said Spann was wielding a knife and trying to rob the shop. Still, he was charged with murder — though the charges were later dropped.

Wilkerson presents his work as an attempt to get to the bottom of this episode, but as we follow him on field trips through the South, he seems to hope we won't notice he's learning nothing at all about the actual killing. Instead, he focuses on context. We learn that Branch was a racist who abused his wife and molested his granddaughters. We find the out-of-town cemetery where Spann's remains reportedly lie in an unmarked grave. We even hear from a family member that Branch killed another black man on a different occasion, and bragged about never spending a night in jail for it. But the only detail Wilkerson unearths about the actual killing, he dismisses out of hand as a lie: An aunt, who once supported Civil Rights but now identifies with white supremacists, claims Spann had been menacing a black woman with that knife, and Branch shot him in part to save her life.

Recounting his unsuccessful investigation, Wilkerson does offer a persuasively grim view of today's South, home to more racism than coastal city-dwellers would like to believe. And he refers to underexposed bits of Southern history — as in a moving account of Rosa Parks' fierce early career in the Civil Rights movement, standing up to the powerful long before her role in Montgomery's bus boycott.

These perspectives are valuable even for those who have no patience for what seems to be Wilkerson's underlying message: That in a world afflicted by racism, all white people are responsible for all mistreatment of black people, even if it happened long before our births. "You fired the gun!" he says near the end, pointing a finger at the audience and raising his voice for the first time, echoing a Phil Ochs protest song.

Other incorporations of political music are more successful: Janelle Monae's protest song “Hell You Talmbout” appears multiple times, chanting the names of those beaten by police and imploring us so remember them aloud. "Say his name, say his name!," the song begs. Though he fails to learn what happened between his ancestor and Bill Spann, and doesn't even rule out the unlikely possibility that the killing was justified, Wilkerson's project does at least keep the victim's name alive.

Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Travis Wilkerson
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (New Frontier)
Sales: exlow@mac.com

92 minutes