Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun—which launches the Veracity: New Documentary Cinema series at Northwest Film Forum—is Travis Wilkerson’s journey into the disturbing history of his rural Alabaman family. Framing the history of his hometown, Dothan, within the context of the civil rights movement and contemporary black resistance, Wilkerson tracks down a secessionist great-aunt, visits Rosa Parks’s birthplace two hours away, and gathers invaluable testimony from a Dothan activist, Ed Vaughn. But he starts with his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, a grocer who murdered a black man named Bill Spann in 1946 and was never charged.
Rather than the origin of a family evil, Branch is the emblem of an institutional white male violence that, even in modern Dothan, still threatens people of color as well as whites who ask too many questions. If Wilkerson’s narration sometimes shades a little too Southern Gothic (“Have you ever been in a place that just feels like something terrible happened there?”), what he uncovers is a stark testament to black heroism, white self-examination, and the still-potent institutional will to shield the sexual and racial terrorism of respected white men from examination.