Travis, an ace photographer and committed activist, explores his own sordid family history, which only gets more shameful as he goes on, trying to atone for the crimes of his heritage by at least bringing them to light. Travis was in the room, reading live narration and triggering clips, making the experience more interesting and confrontational. His research leads him through some truly fiction-sounding scenarios – he’s told to quit searching and is chased out of town, and eventually digs up multiple rapes and another murder. This one has been written up extensively, and more elegantly than I can manage.
A. Taubin from Sundance:
Set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S.E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences … How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question — at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be — is more than enough.
What he found, and what we watch and listen to him deliberate upon, was not news of a single murder, but an entire history of racism and brutal violence against the local black community. Branch, he discovers, was an outspoken bigot linked to multiple instances of violence and abuse against black men and women. With only a pair of vague news clippings and Spann’s death certificate as evidence, Wilkerson proceeded to trace the entwined fates of the Branch and Spann families … The futility of this quest is the crux of the film and the aspect of the project that most plagues Wilkerson, whose narration is in a constant state of second-guessing, self-indictment, and flat-out shame at the extent of the atrocities … When, in the course of his research, Wilkerson discovers that his mother’s sister is a practising white supremacist, the film takes on an increasingly disturbing urgency.
Wilkerson isn’t being disingenuous in his emotions or approach, but some of the moves on display feel too forced to be truly effective, especially when they’re juxtaposed next to others that are above board. This is the one film I feel most conflicted about. On one hand, I’m not sure I should judge an individual’s personal, politically motivated expression, but on the other hand, I can’t lie and say that there weren’t times when it made me feel uncomfortable outside the scope of Wilkerson’s perceived intentions. With that being said, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? was one of the very best things I saw at the festival precisely because it got under my skin.