Travis Wilkerson’s new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, is having a few, hard to find, viewings in the Bay Area.  It’s a difficult film but worth the time to find it and watch it.

When George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, July, 2013, a long-buried family story surfaced in Wilkerson’s mind.  His great-grandfather. S.E. Branch, had killed a black man, Bill Spann in Alabama, August, 1946.  Though charged with murder he did no time: charges and memories disappeared. No one talked about it.  A letter to his mother, one of three sisters, granddaughters of Branch, brought a faded, much-creased newspaper article about the event. With few leads, Wilkerson, set out to find what could be discovered about Branch and the man he had killed.  It is a story, he says

“About two families. One of them is the family of the murderer. One of them is the family of the murdered.  One of them lies in a well-tended grave, the other in a cemetery, unmarked and unknown.”

Trying to locate any evidence about a murder, in a rural Alabama county, in 1946, of a black man by a white man was fruitless. Records, except for Spann’s death certificate — homicide— are missing.  Family memory is thin.  His failure to find, however, enabled deeper revelations and more personal interrogation than mystery-solved might have.

Within a short drive from his great-grandfather’s store, and site of the murder, Wilkerson found the site of the former home of Recy Taylor, a young black woman, raped by six white men, in 1944.  Sent to investigate by the NAACP, and to support her, was Rosa Parks, ten years away from becoming the icon of the new Civil Rights movement.  Taylor and Parks become part of the story.  Along another road on which Wilkerson was driving, William Moore, a white postal worker, was murdered in 1963 while carrying a letter to the governor. His killer was traced, and did no time. The title of the film is taken from a 1963 song by Phil Ochs in memory Walker.  The personal, private investigation has become a public and shared. These deaths, and others, the silence surrounding them, the disappearance of the victims and the presence, even in death, of the perpetrators belongs to us all.

Besides being a documentarian, and a polemicist, Wilkerson is an experimental film-maker.  Some of the experiments work.  Long shots of Alabama roads in different lighting conditions are beautifully eerie, helping the voice of his narration to double and stay with us.  Other devices, such as a clip played backward of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” against a shot of dark trees, distract.  The power of the personal investigation brought me to feel, through him, connected to my own Mississippi grandfather, and the distant relations who still live there, and lived there in the 1940s,  and from 1860s.  I too am connected.  The more adventurous film tricks, however, pulled me away.

The film begins and ends with an almost perfect framing device.  Clips of To Kill a Mockingbird are shown.  Gregory Peck’s white, redemptive  Atticus Finch is the story we like to believe in: a good man doing good work, standing against ignorance and bigotry.  Just as the film was being finished, the predecessor novel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Tell a Watchman,  was released.  In this telling Atticus Finch has a different side, darker, not the one we want to admire. Wilkerson ends the film with the opening shots now in negative projection.  As he says early on:

“Trust me, this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.”


Wilkerson’s web site

Interview: Introspection is Essential 

Film Journal review

NY Times review — which first called my attention to it.

NPR  review 

Review at Slant Magazine

Review, unfavorable at Indie Wire