DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?
(director/writer: Travis Wilkerson; screenwriter: story by Travis Wilkerson; cinematographer: Travis Wilkerson; editor: Travis Wilkerson; music: Travis Wilkerson; cast: Travis Wilkerson (voiceover), Ed Vaughn; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Travis Wilkerson; Grasshopper Film; 2017-color/BW)
“A well-intentioned documentary on racial injustice in the Deep South.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Documentarian Travis Wilkerson (“Who Killed Cock Robin?”/An Injury to One”) explores the troubled past in this racially motivated experimental political crime film about the Jim Crow South. It’s a well-intentioned documentary on racial injustice in the Deep South.
The 48-year-old white man Wilkerson revisits his hometown in Dothan, Ala., where in 1946, the towering physical specimen S.E. Branch, a white grocery shopkeeper and the director’s great-grandfather, was rumored to have shot Bill Spann, a black man customer in his store. Though charged with first-degree murder, there was no trial and the crime was forgotten. The only evidence that the murder took place is from a newspaper article in the local paper and Spann’s death certificate.
Wilkerson returns to his Alabama roots to try and resolve the story for his own reasons by making this painful documentary, hoping to uncover the truth as a way of clearing the air for his family. While investigating on rural back roads and finding very few white folks willing to freely talk to him, the investigation seems to be going nowhere but dredging up awful reminders of the segregated past. His most fulfilling interview is with the former black civil rights leader, now in his eighties, Ed Vaughn. He relates how the black kids would buy candy from Branch’s store on their way home from school, but stopped going there after the killing of Spann.
Two political folk singers of the time have their soundtracks play in the background: Janelle Monáe and Phil Ochs. Ochs’ polemical song “William Moore,” about a white postal worker and civil rights activist murdered on an Alabama highway in 1963, explains the film’s title.
Despite the measured voiceover by Wilkerson (At Sundance, Wilkerson sat to the side of the screen, facing the audience, and read aloud the voiceover) the film can’t help but stir up past wrongs that were never punished and causes more bitterness by the unfriendly ghosts it brings up about that racially charged time period. The film leaves a bitterness even as it tries its best to do right, but turns up too many dead ends to come to a resolution to make us feel good about where we are today in racial matters. To its credit, it’s a sincere film, that wishes to bring our divisive country together and thinks by confronting our racist past (like by a confession) we can begin a healing process. Maybe he’s right.
REVIEWED ON 10/1/2018 GRADE: B