The whole truth and nothing but the truth. Honesty is the best policy. The truth will set you free. These platitudes, immediately recognizable to any American, emphasize just how much value our society places on authenticity. However, whether our actions align with our perceptions of truth is another story entirely. Much of America’s history, especially that regarding its treatment of African-Americans, is built upon lies, deception and brutality. Beneath a glossy exterior of “purple mountain majesties” and “amber waves of grain” there is rot, a suppressed darkness and a dirty and sickening reality that “America the beautiful” is much uglier than she is portrayed as being. Through his powerful and extremely personalized documentary, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?,” Travis Wilkerson punctures the underbelly of the 1940s American South, exposing the blatant reality of racial hatred and unjust violence that lies beneath, remnants of which permeate society today.
Wilkerson begins his work with a clear objective: to unveil the truth about his great grandfather, S.E Branch, a white man guilty of murdering Bill Spann, a Black man in 1946 rural Ala.. Digging deep into his family history, Wilkerson travels around conducting interviews with the few willing relatives and townspeople he can find in hopes of confirming his great-grandfather’s crimes and searching for scraps of knowledge about Spann. With expert mixing of color and black and white sequences, use of sound and incorporation of contemporary racial content, Wilkerson creates an impactful and haunting piece of art that leaves audience members reflecting long after the lights go up. In one of the most intriguing and creative segments of the film, Wilkerson intersperses old, cheery home videos of his grandparents and extended family, while simultaneously voicing-over the certificate of death that was filed for Spann’s murder. The loving family memories playing on screen are representative of the attractive surface level illusion of life in America at the time. But beneath this picture-perfect façade is the truth, a murder that really did happen, but went unacknowledged because the man who lost his life was Black.
The film’s perspective is unique in that it uses the personal story of Wilkerson’s grandfather as a vehicle to unpack racism both at the time and today. Dispersed among clips unravelling the mystery behind Wilkerson’s great-grandfather’s crime are other segments reflecting on the contemporary racial situation in the United States. Sudden interjections of solid, blindingly-white screens serve as literal “wake up calls,” jolting viewers to attention. A rhythmic, African-inspired beat begins to play, as the names of African Americans — Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner to name a few — who recently perished at the hand of the law bounce across the screen, followed by phrases reading, “Say his name” and “Say her name.” The words feel like calls to action, sending chills down audience members’ spines.
Perhaps most haunting however, is the evidence, or lack thereof, that Wilkerson collects on Bill Spann. Aside from his certificate of death and an unmarked grave stone, Wilkerson finds next to nothing on Spann. No family. No records. Nothing. Spann’s existence was buried along with him, discarded by a society that found no value in remembering him. The absence of information that Wilkerson obtains hints again at the theme of truth, or rather its concealment, that resurfaces consistently throughout the film. Wilkerson connects the disregard of Spann’s murder in the ’40s to the present day, suggesting that society still turns a blind eye to the reality of injustice and violence inflicted upon African Americans.
Through the link he stresses between present and past racial climates, Wilkerson shatters the false belief that America is living in a post-racial society, illustrating that our past has in fact become our present. He compels viewers to not only hear what he has to say, but to listen. Ears open, heart pounding and blood boiling, audiences are filled with frustration at the incredible lengths that our nation has gone to not only commit, but deceive itself of the wrongs committed against African Americans. The truth that the United States has put off facing is a bitter and shameful one. We are a nation that fails to protect and defend all of our citizens. We have failed. But there is still time for change, a change that can only come when we all “Say their names” together. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. To “Say their names” is to speak the truth, and it is far past time to start speaking it.