"Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?" is a film about threats -- racial and otherwise
“Trust me when I tell you this isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.”
If I were a moth, the story of white men reckoning with race in America would singe my wings every time. With that in mind, I was not disappointed when I went to see Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? on March 24 as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. In fact, there are about eight pieces I could write about this film, which was one of the 10 features in competition at the year's fest and ended up winning the Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary Film.
1. What Do You Wonder?
I have so many questions about a filmmaker who has decided to poke around, research, and document the circumstances surrounding the murder of Billy Spann, an unarmed black man, that was perpetrated by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch. Before I saw this film listed in the Ann Arbor Film Festival publicity, I hadn’t heard of Travis Wilkerson. Much of the narration in the film was Wilkerson’s own. I wonder if anyone tells him that his voice reminds them of Shawn Mullins. I wonder if that would annoy him. I hadn’t known that Did You Wonder Who Shot the Gun? started out as a live performance where he would narrate the film live to an audience. I wonder if there was a particular moment when he decided to stop doing that. I wonder how many people look to Wilkerson to make them feel better about their own family history or heritage? I wonder how many cities he has screened this film, how many audiences he has addressed, how their responses differed?
2. Critics Say
Before viewing the film, I poked around on the internet searching for more information. Based on the pieces I found, it seemed like this movie was upsetting viewers. Well, maybe not that exactly, but bothering them? The main irritants seemed to be the movie’s structure and the lack of a neatly tied up narrative.
So, I entered the screening room primed to be annoyed. The movie wasn’t told in a linear fashion; it was a collection of stories, really. A part of Wilkerson’s story is that he is said to look like his great-grandfather, who murdered Billy Spann in the Branch family’s grocery store in 1946. To be Travis Wilkerson is to be integrated with this difficult truth. To tell this story is to unearth what is buried.
One critique of the film is that it is “maddeningly self-focused.” I stumble on that critique a bit. I don’t know what it is like to be the direct descendant of a known murderer. However, I imagine that if I had such a story to tell, and if I attempted to tell it, you’d see my hand in it at every turn. Wilkerson directed, produced, and edited this film; shouldn’t we expect to see him in it? A critique that calls this piece self-centric makes me wonder whether it should be, or more accurately, whether there’s anything wrong with Wilkerson’s approach. How would other history-based stories be different if people self-consciously placed themselves in the story, acknowledging that they have a stake in the way that the story is told? Maybe this is Wilkerson’s point?
3. Vaughn’s Museum
We need to talk about Ed Vaughn, a life-long activist with deep roots Dothan, Alabama. Vaughn is also one of the two black people filmed for this movie. Vaughn’s home is like a museum of black-history classics. If each of us walked around with a bibliography that informed the way we view the world, I’d bet money that Carter G. Woodson would be on Vaughn’s list. Among other things, the viewer saw inside Vaughn’s place were an image of George Washington Carver and an autographed photograph of Rosa Parks dated January 22, 1980. There’s a “colored sign” from the segregated south. There’s a picture of Nelson Mandela. Others were represented, too, among them: Josephine Baker, Ntozake Shange, Malcolm X, Haile Selassie, Dennis Rodman, Frederick Douglas, and Stokely Carmichael. There was a Tuskegee Airmen cap sitting on Vaughn’s couch. Ed Vaughn himself spoke in that circular way that some older people talk. The interview with Vaughn was very effective in showing how we are all a part of a bigger history. Vaughn’s personal museum also served as a stark contrast to the place where information about Billy Spann is hard to come by. At first glance of Vaughn, you might see a hoarder. Another look, however, makes you wonder if what you’re actually seeing is resistance against a world that has silenced select narratives.
4: Dots Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? forces the viewer to connect dots. He uses collected images and voices to move toward a story about what happened. Billy Spann’s story eludes us more than S. E. Branch’s story does. Wilkerson both shows and tells this to his audience. Throughout the movie are breaks in the narrative that show the names of black people who, like Spann, had been killed without anyone ever being brought to justice for the killing. The viewer is forced to acknowledge this loss of life as Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records' “Hell You Talmbout” plays. You know the names. Some of them. I am stricken by how many of the names I don’t know. I am forced to sit with this.
By punctuating the story like this, Wilkerson puts the dots between the past and the present right there in front of the viewer. You can see one from the other. You just have to connect them.
• What does it mean to take a Southern story out of the South?
• What does it mean to return to the physical place where your great-grandfather took a life?
• What does it mean to be the direct descendant of someone who killed a man in cold blood?
• How do we choose which people and which ideas will earn our loyalty?
6: Killing Mockingbirds
I don’t know that you can ever be surprised to see a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird in a piece that talks about racial injustice, especially if, like the book, the setting is Alabama. When I saw images from the iconic movie based on Harper Lee’s book, I could only think about what happened in the news when Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. During that time, my own reaction had admittedly been more cynical. We love Atticus Finch, the hero. We love the redemptive tale of a white man doing the right thing in the Deep South. We weren’t so excited about Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which told a different story. I remember watching what felt like a collective mourning of a perfect thing. I also remembered that I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. Was it 10th grade? 9th? I don’t remember putting my faith in of Atticus Finch. Wilkerson suggests To Kill a Mockingbird was Atticus Finch’s public face and Go Set a Watchman was his private face, and that this is the To Kill A Mockingbird metaphor that enshrouds the story that he’s telling. And in a moment, the comparison I had thought would be trite became poignant.
7. Shoulds and Should Nots
• It should not feel like a relief to hear someone link racial and sexual violence.
• One should not roll one’s eyes in bored exasperation when during the Q&A someone asks what feels like a painfully obvious question: Of course, the song being played backward as we looked at a forest of cottonwood trees was Billie Holiday’s rendition of "Strange Fruit."
• It should not feel like a relief to witness someone exhibit how some stories have no satisfactory conclusion.
• In viewing a movie that involves a variety of people telling stories, one should not confuse lies for contradictions. There exist all sorts of narrative discrepancies, some masquerading for others.
• You should not be surprised to hear an audience member ask the filmmaker whether this work helped him deal with his own guilt.
• You should endeavor to actively be aware of how your own narrative interacts with the one on screen as you view a movie like Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
• What should be is not always so.
8: Some People Are Bad People
We learn in the movie that S. E. Branch kept a few choice items in a drawer in his grocery store: two sets of brass knuckles, a bullwhip, and a loaded revolver. I don’t know where the line is between wanting to keep oneself safe and having a tendency toward violence, nor do I know how one’s position on that line exhibits itself in one’s possessions. After Wilkerson heard from one of his aunts, who suggested that S. E. Branch had killed Billy Spann in defense of a black woman who sought refuge from him in the store, other family members added to the story and suddenly became more forthcoming about their grandfather than they had been hitherto. This was too much for one of the family members. One aunt, in particular, wanted to be sure that Wilkerson understood that Branch hated black people and that he had no regard for women. Included in “no regard for women,” a family member alleges he sexually abused her.
We also learned through the course of the movie that Wilkerson, in trying to suss out this story, stumbled upon another murder. The story goes that a black man owed S. E. branch some money and that when Branch went to collect on the debt, he shot the man dead, and was proud that he got no jail time for it.
Then we learned that S. E. Branch would pack some of his belongings into a black, leather, doctor’s bag and then travel into the countryside posing as a doctor, treating poor blacks.
If we go back to connecting dots, Wilkerson, through this doled-out story, communicates that while S. E. Branch was an individual who did the things that he did, meting out violence and punishment as he saw fit, there was an entire system in place that allowed him to do so.
This whole movie can be framed as a story about threats. Wilkerson’s active white supremacist aunt seems to believe that her way of life, her South, is endangered. She speaks, in a letter having ignored Wilkerson’s requests to film her, of a “cultural genocide,” which she believes is the precursor to “physical genocide.” It seems, though, also, and perhaps most importantly to her, that her memories are endangered. Through her letter, we see that she has good memories of S. E. Branch. Wilkerson, himself, was threatened a few times as he poked around looking to tell this story. He tells the audience several times how often he was being followed. Sometimes, strangers to him knew his name because word had traveled about his investigation. Of course, the specter of racially motivated violence hung over the entire film as it wove back and forth between past and present.
Then, of course, there is the movie’s final threat, the one that is sure to be delivered upon. While yesterday has passed, yesterday is not over.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.