Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
This documentary bucks conventions and tells a fascinating story.
True crime fans will see a new spin on the genre, as Travis Wilkerson's specific, unwavering cadence as a narrator and filmmaker can provide chills.
Shows us that in 1946, and onward to 2018, there is still so much work, healing, and restoration that needs to be done between then and now.
If you are unable to appreciate the way Wilkerson has crafted his movie, you are in for a long 90 minutes.
A movie that might open up a lot more questions than provide answers.
As compelling as this is, Did You Wonder... seems, at times, to be more concerned with how it looks and feels than what the ultimate messages and themes happen to be.
Haunting, hypnotic, and quite unique, Travis Wilkerson’s hard-to-categorize documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a domestic horror story that cuts well past the quick. Hard to shake, and if you can accept the manner with how the film is presented, Wilkerson’s movie will stick with you for a considerable amount of time.
The title, lifted from lyrics found in Phil Ochs’ 1964 ballad “William Moore”, written in memory of a slain, white, Atalla, Alabama postal worker who stood alone protesting racial segregation, Wilkerson begins laying out the details of a terrible reality within the almost literal branches of his family tree.
His great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, owner of the local Branch’s Grocery, killed Bill Spann, a black man in a racially-motivated act of violence in 1946. Branch, never charged, suffered no consequences for his actions. Understandably, this discovery rocked Wilkerson’s world, so much so that he began litigating his own family history and connections to relatives, both living and deceased.
The movie bookends images from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Wilkerson’s commanding, arresting narration carries us through an almost continual montage of still images and video clips. Prior to adding his narration to the final cut of the film, Wilkerson would bring his images to film festivals and special events, providing live narration as the images played behind him. With a strong, intimidating, yet captivating power to his voice, we listen and hang on his every fact, discovery, and detail. My wife described the film as a visual audiobook or cinematic podcast, and it is an apt comparison.
Once you dig into the meat of the story, the titular question is answered. S.E. Branch fired the gun and Wilkerson realizes the murder weapon was a gun he shot in the woods for sport when he was a kid. We also start to see members of Wilkerson’s family, including an aunt, who went from being a civil rights activist in her 20’s to that of a Southern Nationalist and secessionist in her elderly years.
There’s lots to unpack here.
This is a polarizing film, not so much for what the film shares, but in how Wilkerson conveys his information. The entire film is narrated, except for a stretch or two where he turns the film over to archival footage or, for an extended period of time, civil rights activist Ed Vaughn, who tells a careening, wide-ranging set of stories that may not speak specifically to what Wilkerson asked, but does give a sense of what life was like in and around the time of Spann’s murder.
At other moments, the movie pauses to show title cards with the names of a select number of African-Americans murdered by gun violence, who all found their murderers receiving no repercussions for the killings. Names like Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray are shown to the music of a random mix of artists like Ochs, Janelle Monae, and others.
To appreciate Wilkerson’s work, you must subscribe to the film’s unique rhythm and cadence. The scrapbook of still images, sometimes related to the narration, other times absent of context, could mesmerize a viewer as much as frustrate them. One lengthy sequence, near the end of the film, finds Wilkerson sharing a lengthy stream of thoughts, while a fixed camera shoots out the front window of a moving car, with a reddish-black hue altering the footage.
Did You Wonder... is original, immersive, and, at times, astonishing. The presentation and layout can also churn up some frustration in trying to determine what the movie is attempting to do. Is this a movie made for one person, attempting to rectify some abhorrent truths within his family? Does it provide enough depth to speak beyond Wilkerson’s family to a bigger scope and focus? Is it successful in making a statement about how racism and racial violence has permeated and become tolerated in a still significant portion of our society?
Difficult to define and poking at the conventions of what defines a documentary film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is hard to forget, even if, at times, it can be a challenge to endure.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Travis Wilkerson (voiceover), Ed Vaughn.
Director: Travis Wilkerson
Written by: Travis Wilkerson
Release Date: February 28, 2018