When director Travis Wilkerson first premiered his documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, at the Sundance Film Festival and True/False last year, it was a unique piece of performance art. Seated next to the screen with a desk, a laptop, and a microphone, Wilkerson narrated the film in his deep, booming voice, leading the audience through a semi-experimental assemblage of home movies, snapshots, musical interstitials, and original footage of his travels to Alabama, where he went to investigate a shameful chapter in his family history. His great-grandfather S.E. Branch, a white grocery-store proprietor from Dothan, murdered a black man, Bill Spann, in cold blood in 1946. And he got away with it.
Wilkerson knew he would turn Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? into a proper documentary, but his decision to assert himself through this performance first is meaningful: He wanted no distance between himself and the story he was telling. If he was to incriminate his great-grandfather for an act rooted in racial hatred, then he would have to incriminate himself, too, for being part of one family that effectively destroyed another. The extraordinary power of seeing Wilkerson on stage, swelling with anger and raw emotion, cannot be reproduced in the version he's releasing to theaters, but it comes much closer than expected. Through this personal journey, Wilkerson accesses America's heart of darkness.
For Wilkerson, who describes himself as a political "radical," the genesis of the film was the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man, George Zimmerman, was exonerated for shooting an unarmed black teenager. That scenario — and many others like it — brought Wilkerson back to his great-grandfather, who had also gotten away with shooting a black man under a thin claim of self-defense, even though it was officially cited as a homicide. Wilkerson digs up everything he can about Branch: Public records, 8mm home-movie footage, a visit to the man's well-kept grave, and queries of his descendants. Wilkerson interviews with his own mother and her sister and includes letters to his estranged second aunt, who has aligned herself with a vile white supremacist group.
At the same time, Wilkerson wants to learn more about Bill Spann, but his search yields a series of dead ends — unkept records, unmarked graves and no known descendants to account for him. The contrast between the two families is a point Wilkerson hammers home more than once: "One of them is the family of the murderer. One of them is the family of the murdered." He makes the convincing argument that racial violence can be a kind of erasure, with ramifications beyond the loss of a single life. The fates of Branch, Spann, and their respective bloodlines are a chilling study in white supremacy, and Wilkerson implicates himself as a beneficiary of systemic injustice. He offers the film as penance and self-laceration.
Though Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? could be described as essayistic, it's also a surprising, discursive, form-expanding work of art. Wilkerson bookends the film with provocative criticism on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, and the public and private faces of their hero, Atticus Finch. As he goes from one rural Alabama town to another, he offers mostly black-and-white snapshots and video footage, emphasizing how little these places have changed, other than showing signs of decay. Dashboard views of Wilkerson driving down backroads are rendered in tinted red skies and dark horizons, as if he's venturing into a nightmare. There are many folk numbers and spirituals on the soundtrack — including Phil Ochs' protest song "William Moore," which inspired the title — but "Sweet Home Alabama" definitely isn't one of them.
Only one element of the film — an entreaty to recognize the specific names of slain black men and women — doesn't carry over as forcefully from performance piece to documentary, but Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? remains a searing, one-of-a-kind creation. Wilkerson opens up an uncomfortable discussion on race in America and he doesn't give himself or the audience an inch of intellectual remove from the topic. Few films can be artful and blunt at the same time, and fewer still are willing to interrogate themselves as thoroughly as their subjects.