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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

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Over 15 years, Travis Wilkerson has doggedly pursued a radical political filmmaking that excoriates the operation of the structures of American power, but never before has he made a film this personal, locating the sickness of whiteness within his own tortured family history. In Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? Wilkerson narrates the story of two families, one white and one black, and it’s one hell of a story. The filmmaker’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, shot a man named Bill Spann one Alabama night in 1946. Although he was charged with murder, Branch never served a day in prison. Wilkerson frames his masterful film as a murder-mystery investigation into this family secret, returning to his hometown for the first time in 20 years to uncover the truth. On the way, the road diverts – clearly, it’s not a detour – to an oral history of southern racism, amounting to a ghost chronicle of haunted places where time has stood still.
Radical filmmaking demands radical aesthetics, and Wilkerson, delivering the angry voiceover himself, mostly films his landscapes and interview scenes in stark black and white, deviating for lengthy travelling shots painted in red, camera pointed out the front window of his car, as he drives the Alabama highways on a search that comes to threaten his own safety. Spann’s life and death is shown to be atypical among southern blacks in the 1940s, but as with all good historical inquiries, Wilkerson’s point is in the here and now. As young blacks are gunned down by police without incrimination on a frequent basis, Wilkerson’s incredibly powerful film speaks volumes to the present, and demands that we never forget.

Mark Peranson
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