Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Director: Travis Wilkerson
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The image of Gregory Peck sitting silently in the courtroom from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the first thing we see in Travis Wilkerson’s self-narrated essay/documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? However, these scenes have been tinted in a red hue and repeatedly looped, creating a feeling of unease and disorientation. Wilkerson’s film, which investigates the 1946 murder of African-American Bill Spann by white grocery store owner S.E. Branch in Dothan, Alabama, is at once deeply personal and universally resonant. Ultimately, Wilkerson’s urge to remove the layers of racism within his own family line (Branch was his great-grandfather) becomes an indictment of whiteness. Though his intentions are well-meaning, Wilkerson is still just another white man with a camera trying to elevate black lives lost in time.
Long-held still shots of broken down grocery stores, family photos, and deserted streets are interspersed with interviews as well as Wilkerson’s grave narration, which gives the film a haunted quality. The cyclical nature of history, with its violence against people of color is intrinsically linked to the picture’s editing schemes and cross-dissolving of various media (music, onscreen text, and color inverted imagery is repeated throughout), but there’s also a keen sense of self-incrimination here. Reconnecting with estranged aunts and even reaching out to one involved with white supremacy in the Klan-friendly town of Cottonwood, Wilkerson consistently questions his entire project; relegating it to the realm of exploitation under the guise of “wokeness.”
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a fascinating study in contradictions. By interrogating his whiteness, Wilkerson opens up his film for a white audience to do the same; following his painful journey in attempting to give a dead African American man a sense of dignity by looking inward and wrestling with privilege. While the conclusions the film comes to aren’t surprising, they have the effect of giving us the opportunity to take another look at something we’ve seen before; like Gregory Peck standing with his head held high, body covered in blood.