In October of 1946, a white, racist Alabama shop owner named S.E. Branch fatally shot a black man named Bill Spann in the rural town of Dothan, 18 miles from the Florida line. He was charged with first-degree murder but did not serve time.
Scant information about this crime exists outside of Spann’s death certificate, but documentary filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, who is S.E. Branch’s great-grandson, has spent years exhuming the 62-year-old incident. The result is his harrowing essay film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which attempts to unpack the events of that night, his troubled family heritage, the racial divisions of Southern Alabama then and now, and the connections he draws between Bill Spann and the BLM martyrs of today — Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, et al.
It’s a lot for a 90-minute film, but Wilkerson is more than up to the task. This provocative murder mystery is part investigative journalism, part filial reckoning, part condemnation of an entire race of people: white European-Americans.
To wit, the movie opens with Wilkerson’s voice-over. “Trust me when I tell you: This isn’t another white savior story,” he says. “It’s a white nightmare story.” Toward the end, he opines, “Whiteness can incinerate a family with the heat equal to a bomb. Give it enough time, and whiteness will incinerate the world.” Whoa. It’s the only time his vocal cords, a steady anchor of clinical dispassion throughout the film, crack under the weight of such an inflammatory statement, the sort designed to make Tucker Carlson’s head explode like that poor guy in Cronenberg’s Scanners. It’s also the earnest, wrenching conclusion of a treatise about a particular strain of American evil.
But whether or not you, like Wilkerson, view Bill Spann’s death as a microcosm of white privilege extended to apocalyptic degrees, his movie remains an exhilarating collage, the kind of art film usually reserved for museums and not cinemas. Bravo to the Lake Worth Playhouse for being adventurous enough to open it this weekend.
S.E. Branch died while Travis was still an infant; he knows his great-grandfather only through home movies. His filming of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? takes him back to his Dothan hometown for the first time in 20 years where, with the assistance of an unseen private investigator, he attempts the quixotic journey of opening a very cold case. The movie is a pileup of frustrations and roadblocks, where the most usable information is delivered in secret, in the backrooms of public buildings and in the cluttered homes of elderly civil-rights activists, usually when the cameras aren’t rolling.
He shoots the present-day footage in black-and-white — appropriately, for a story that is entirely about black and white — and prefers still photographs to video. His Alabama townscapes have an almost postwar quality to them: derelict streets, weedy, boarded-up homes rotting in disrepair, once-thriving businesses buckling under decades of neglect. The market where Bill Spann lost his life is now a “shot house” — the unfortunately evocative name for a run-down, unlicensed bar, where two other people were killed in the intervening years. The locals are certain it’s haunted, and this quality comes across in Wilkerson’s stark photography.
In part because the 1946 murder is so bereft of data, Wilkerson allows his journey to wander into discursive narrative byways, addressing subjects such as segregated health care in the Jim Crow South, Rosa Parks’ brave entrée into civil-rights and anti-rape activism more than a decade prior to the Montgomery bus boycott, and the world of contemporary white nationalism, culminating in a surreal visit to a Confederate graveyard. Wilkerson’s aunt Jean, we learn, underwent a midlife transformation from a civil-rights activist into a white separatist, joining a prominent secessionist organization. Her belated response to Wilkerson’s inquiries about her grandfather, in which she defends her political beliefs and asserts that the “cultural genocide” of her people is becoming “physical genocide,” is one of the movie’s most chilling sequences.
The director’s structuralism is exciting. There are jump cuts, lengthy blackouts guided only by Wilkerson’s voice, textual intertitles, picture-in-picture overlays, and multiple videos unspooling on the screen simultaneously — a torrent of ingeniously presented information. Wilkerson includes diversions into the liberal wish fulfillment of Harper Lee’s similarly set To Kill a Mockingbird, whose heroic protagonist is “a secular saint” and not a flawed, flesh-and-blood human. Like something out of Godard’s experimentalist work, he superimposes a haunting clip of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit,” in reverse speech, over a shot of trees in Cottonwood, where the Klan once lynched its victims.
As in Bunuel or Eisenstein, a shot of a deer carcass consumed by flies, discovered while Wilkerson was en route to visit the unmarked grave of Bill Spann, speaks symbolic volumes without overstating the point. It seems Spann’s life has been as forgotten as the animal, whitewashed out of Alabama history.
Wilkerson spends much of his therapeutic voiceovers checking his own white privilege. Inherent in his project is the reality that if he were African-American, even today, he would never be given the access — or the funding, probably — to complete this feature, to say nothing of leaving Dothan alive.
Twice, he reports, Wilkerson was followed in his car during his travels in Alabama, with one dogged pursuer tracking him for miles, no matter how fast he accelerated. Another time, he had to escape inside a Ruby Tuesday’s to finally shake off the predators.
The Confederacy may be buried, but some states are freer than others.
DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? Director: Travis Wilkerson; Distributor: Grasshopper; Rating: NR; Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse