Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? has been released at the perfect time.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? has been released at the perfect time. Its themes of institutionalized racial violence, toxic masculinity and the impunity of white males in US society are firmly within our current sociopolitical zeitgeist and its intensive focus on Trump, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Its release coincides with an Oscars ceremony that will include similarly-themed Strong Island as a Best Documentary nominee and comes on the heels of much print- and screen-based handwringing over race, national identity and the rise of Trump to the White House.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is not, however, like most of its documentary peers. It does not turn the camera on the police or black lives cut short by racism and violence—though both of these certainly feature in its runtime—but instead chooses to emphasize whiteness as its central topic. This seems appropriate on multiple levels. Not only is the film’s director/writer/cinematographer/voice actor/editor, Travis Wilkerson, himself a white man, but Ta-Nehisi Coates’ astute observation that Trump is the first white President means that “whiteness” as a socially-constructed political phenomenon deserves more of our attention. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, therefore, more closely resembles confessional autobiographical films like Stories We Tell and Karl Marx City than it does such hard-hitting political commentaries as 13th and Do Not Resist.
Wilkerson begins the film with a shocking personal testimony: his great-grandfather, a white shopkeeper in Dothan, Alabama, was once charged with the first-degree murder of a black man, but was never arrested, put on trial or made in any way to suffer legal consequences from this action. The film is a double investigation, first of the facts surrounding his great-grandfather’s murderous act and, second, of what our long history of white supremacy means for those of us who have inherited it. And, crucially, the latter question is directed at and focused on white people, not those of color! What does it mean to grow up white in a white supremacist-constructed world? What about white people who are “#Woke,” who march for justice for Trayvon, read James Baldwin and argue with racist uncles over Thanksgiving dinner? Have such white people not also inherited the ill-gotten wealth produced by the exploitation of black bodies, either as slaves or partial citizens, upon which the United States is built?
This is where the film’s power lies: Wilkerson has quite literally inherited a past of white racial dominance (but what white-skinned US-American hasn’t?) and he simultaneously rejects the vile ideology of white superiority. He drives across the Edmund Pettus bridge, the camera in the seat next to him. The implicit question is whether a white person, any white person—with generations of black folks’ blood on his hands—is able to mine any non-white-supremacist meaning from crossing such a notorious span. The film captures how Wilkerson grapples with this challenge and its implications.
In addition to being a desperately-needed interrogation of whiteness, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is also a stylish, avant-garde documentary. The photography is primarily black-and-white, with split screens, montages and jump cuts throughout. Wilkerson includes several sing-along musical interludes between key moments, each of which feature a marching band thrashing away on the soundtrack while the words of a protest chant are displayed on screen. The style complements the horrifying narrative well, as it keeps viewers engaged and in suspense about what will come next.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is plagued by the same problem that wracks most of these autobiographical, family-history documentaries. Namely, it is ultimately more emotive and personal than it is argument-driven and systemic. Sure, it tells a stunningly and increasingly violent story of racism and impunity, but would any viewer doubt that depraved white supremacists lived in ‘40s Alabama? Wilkerson senses the thinness of his story and works to stretch it, expanding his tale to the neighboring town of Abbeville, whose most famous native was Rosa Parks. Parks worked as the NAACP’s investigator of a brutal gang rape in Abbeville in 1944, around the same time that Wilkerson’s ancestor was gunning down his victim. The Parks plotline is always only tangential to Wilkerson’s main idea, but it reveals the level of whitewashing that figures such as Parks have suffered; this is a further exploration of whiteness, particularly of the performative, under-informed woke, liberal whiteness that champions Parks for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott while ignoring her more radical lifetime of dogged work against both white supremacy and misogyny. But Wilkerson does not fully incorporate Parks here, so the episode feels somewhat tacked on. The same is true of a too-brief scene featuring Confederate commemoration and Civil War reenactment, an entirely different and even more toxic version of performed whiteness.
It may be a disservice to saddle Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? with such a trite adjective as “important,” but the film is undeniably necessary and timely. It is much more than that, however, with its artful composition and pondering of fundamental questions of identity and memory.