Travis Wilkerson’s family history is not one he is proud of. You would forgive him if he never talked about it in public. I, too, would be apprehensive if I knew one of my closer descendants (in his case, his great-grandfather) had been racist scum responsible for killing a black man in cold blood. The past is shameful. Nor is it one that can be ignored. When someone of your blood once took a life, the burden is hard to wrestle with. Wilkerson tries by offering us an essay film in the name of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which he narrates like a noir pulled from the same era is great-grandfather lived. It is a relatively sparse affair, which is suitable considering how sparse the facts are that he unearths. His murderous relative is seen in a few frames of 8mm family film, hulking intimidatingly. Wilkerson visits his well-kept grave and speaks to his mother and aunts, one of whom is now a white supremacist herself. As for the victim, Bill Spann, Wilkerson finds nothing at all. Just a death certificate and a cemetery, where the man is buried in an unmarked grave. His entire existence seems to have died with him. Without Wilkerson, Bill Spann would be an anonymous statistic. Without Wilkerson, it would be as if Bill Spann had never lived at all.
This film helps reclaim Spann’s memory, and does it well. It’s a film eternally depressed at its own existence, because S.E. Branch and his evils are forced to dominate by dint of his own line still thriving, everyone able to remember the terrible things he did. Wilkerson wants to speak to ghosts and can only intuit their desires. In a town dominated by white supremacists, he films its trees and superimposes a clip of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” in reverse. In reverse, you understand nothing; all you hear is a low moan interspersed with gasps and stutters. I’d like to think it’s Wilkerson honoring those ghosts who cannot speak to him, but who can be heard suffering through time. He pays them tribute because he cannot resurrect them and offer expiation. He cannot undo his great-grandfather’s evil, or posthumously indict him for murder (perhaps murders, plural). He is too late for that. All he can do is fight through the shame of his bloodline and tell his story, with the hope that someone listens and learns. Because S.E. Branch is not really dead. The man is. His evil is not. His virulent racism and hatred continue on, empowering many others like him to instigate the provocations, the slaughters, the terrors of the night. He fired the gun on that fateful day in 1946, and the gunshots continue to reverberate. We hear them everywhere. The bullets and the blood—still seen.
Like Wilkerson sonorously intones at the beginning of the film, this is a white nightmare story. A nightmare without end.