A Decades-Old Murder Investigation Exposes the Ugly Truth About Racism in America
In the new documentary ‘Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?’ filmmaker Travis Wilkerson explores his great-grandfather S.E. Branch’s murder of a black man, Bill Spann.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is, in the words of director Travis Wilkerson, a “white nightmare story.” And indeed, the sensation of watching Wilkerson’s film is not unlike experiencing a nightmare, complete with ghosts and the feeling of being slowly subsumed by an awful, unresolved evil. Though the story is his, it’s also a reflection of America’s past and present, and the parts of American history that are so often glossed over in favor of a cleaner, more wholesome picture.
In 1946, S.E. Branch, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, murdered Bill Spann. Branch was charged with murder, but nothing came of it. He was never convicted, never jailed. In other words, he got away with it. The reason why: Spann was black.
In the intervening years, the story became a family legend, hidden away and rarely discussed. So why has Wilkerson chosen to unearth it all now? As he explains at the beginning of his film, it had been on his mind in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, as the outcome of the case mirrored what he’d heard about his great-grandfather. Once again, a killer had gotten off scot-free. Placed throughout Wilkerson’s film are interstitials featuring the names of black men and women (among them, Sean Bell and Sandra Bland, each accompanied with the plea to say their name) who were killed with virtually no repercussions. The case of S.E. Branch and Bill Spann isn’t an isolated incident nor is it a product of the times: It’s still happening today.
It’s a point that’s thrown into starker relief the further Wilkinson delves into his family’s history. He discovers, for instance, that Branch gave the revolver he’d used to kill Spann to one of his granddaughters as a birthday present. On top of that, as he interrogates both his family and the people who still live near where the murder happened, he reveals one of his relatives to be a politically active white supremacist. The rest of the family has cut off contact as a result, but it’s a living reminder of the family’s ugly history, just as the movement with which they’re associated—and the Klan territory that Wilkerson finds himself in as he continues his research—are a reminder of America’s ugly history, specifically with regard to race.
“Did you wonder?” the film asks. Then, as the story unravels and it becomes clear that these questions aren’t hypothetical or somehow removed from our present, “Did you know?”
The transition is devastating, and a testament to Wilkerson’s skill as a filmmaker. The film is a collage of interviews, home videos, photographs, and video footage of the places that Wilkerson visits as he attempts to stitch the whole story together. It’s a deceptively simple set-up for a story that takes so many twists and turns, but it’s all that’s needed for a story that’s a personal reckoning as well as a siren call to confront the past ourselves.
The ’30s and ’40s are only some decades removed—they’re not ancient history. They’re even less removed when one considers, as Wilkerson does, that Spann’s murder is essentially still being played out. To that end, Wilkerson’s film is a dismantling of the American “fable.” It’s a demand that we look at the “public” and “private” faces that we put on ourselves and on history, which he drives home in his dissection of Atticus Finch, comparing him to his great-grandfather. To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is widely taught, with Finch—especially Gregory Peck’s portrayal in the 1962 film adaptation—serving as something of a popular moral hero. But, as Wilkerson argues, that version of Finch is his “public” face; it’s wishful thinking, too good to be true. It’s Go Set a Watchman that reveals the real Finch, a bigot, and the hidden ugliness to American morality. Similarly, Branch had his public and private faces, and the investigation of the latter leads to even more horrors than Spann’s murder.
Wilkerson’s portrait of how we reckon with history and moral failure is even more damning as he notes that, in learning about his great-grandfather, he had the luxury of going through troves of family memorabilia (including some chilling footage of Branch after the murder, in which he’s practically swaggering, proud of what he’s done), whereas in his investigation of Spann, he found next to nothing. Spann is gone—erased from history, buried in an unmarked grave. Even as Wilkerson travels through Alabama, documenting his search, Spann is rendered silent.
Over the course of the film, Wilkerson takes a few detours. He travels not just to Dothan, Alabama, where his family is from (and where the shop in which Spann was killed still stands), but to Rosa Parks’ childhood home, to a nearby Klan hotbed, to Selma, to a secessionist rally. It’s a part of the present moment as much as it is of history—if the two are extricable at all. The film is startlingly honest in that respect—startling, because this kind of honesty is really the only way to address these stories, and yet it’s so rarely seen. In his artist’s statement, Wilkerson writes, “It seems to me pretty clear that if you can’t take meaningful account of oppression, if you can’t name and confront it, if you can’t make your position on it clear, you allow it to go on.” And, clearly, these abuses are still going on.
It feels trite to say that Wilkerson’s film must be seen, but there’s no way around it. His dissolution of his perception of his family—of his history—in order to explore the larger problems and conflicts underneath forces the viewer to do the same. And more than that, it’s the kind of honesty and ownership that’s rarely seen in film, let alone in real life.