It’s an odd title as who fired the gun that killed Bill Spann, a 46 year old African American man in Dothan, Alabama that night in 1946, is not in doubt. It was director Travis Wilkerson’s great grandfather, SE Branch, in his convenience store. Charges were later dropped and Branch was never punished.
Nor is it in doubt that the accepted version of events that portrays Branch as a man acting in self-defence is false, though for much of the film it’s the only explanation we have.
Instead Travis Wilkerson’s movie is more about how Branch’s victim Bill Spann has been hitherto not only voiceless but forgotten; and though we find out that this has happened (to his credit Wilkerson hired a private detective to find out more about Spann as well as trying to find any living relatives himself) we don’t really find out enough about why.
But the contrast between the privileged white people filling their home movies (Branch himself appearing with imposing swagger, others with that smiling embarrassment as the camera rolls and no one really knows what to say or do, but always with that unshakable understanding of their place in society and that they can never be written out), and the almost completely absent black murder victim and his wife, is stark.
In photos Branch is a typical beaming patriarch, with his wife and daughters and grandchildren. But what Wilkerson uncovers shows he was anything but pleasant. A vicious racist, abusive to black and white women including his wife and daughter, he knew he was pretty much above the law, but his bullying and status meant though this information was barely buried, it was also never mentioned.
Of Bill Spann, the man Branch murdered, Wilkerson finds out little. There are certainly no photographs of him surviving, and even now 70 years on no one wants to talk about what happened, or if they do it is to dissemble and confuse. Alternative versions of events (one relative claims Branch was protecting a black woman from Spann) are clearly ludicrous particularly in the light of Blanch’s treatment of women generally and his outright racism.
Despite the passing of so many decades the refusal of people even now to speak about the crime is deeply unnerving at the very least. Wilkerson sounds like a man who can take care of himself yet he is still followed, and warned about what he is doing, when he visits Dothan. A few people outside of the family help him, but often they refuse to be filmed doing it.
Wilkerson narrates his film with a monotone but determinedly, furiously, angry voice. There’s a jarring use of colour. Footage (including from To Kill A Mockingbird) goes from black and white to dark red and orange. Thunder claps and rain falls. Some home movie footage is sometimes made to look almost fiery. (The screen text font is really hard to read which doesn’t help when tying to decipher the titles of the different sections of the film or the end credits.) The music is perfectly chosen, from Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout, listing the names of black men and women killed by police or in other racial violence.
Wilkerson references the case of Recy Taylor, a young mother who was raped by six white men and boys in Abbeville in Alabama two years earlier in 1944. The attack on Taylor and the campaign for justice for her is covered in another film that was also shown in the New York Film Festival, The Rape Of Recy Taylor, though that film did more to not only tell Recy’s story but also to place it within the wider context of the abuse of black women by white men, and how that relates to the civil rights movement as a whole. (Both are directed by white people, though The Rape of Recy Taylor focuses on her story – and it’s a story mostly told by people of colour – rather than her attackers’).
This film also tries to put Branch’s murderous actions into context (and activist Ed Vaughn is illuminating about local school strikes over the treatment of black women pupils, and also the appalling medical facilities for black people at the hospital Spann was taken to and where he died) but is slightly less successful. Though the problems Wilkerson has finding out anything about Bill Spann to an extent speak for themselves about how black people and their history are erased on a macro and a micro level.
And the section about one of Wilkerson’s relatives, who appears to have made a journey from folk music-loving civil rights activist to secessionist white nationalist, is both fascinating and terrifying. (There’s also an interesting use of photos – a picture of the woman in her youth, stunningly beautiful, finishing with one now as middle-aged and hard-faced seems to link female beauty with morality of views. It may not have been used deliberately, as the woman was hard to track down, but ugly face=ugly soul is a remarkably common trope. Her views are vile but are nothing to do with her looks apart from her whiteness.)
Wilkerson’s is a deeply personal story, told in an idiosyncratic style that won’t work for everyone. He can’t hold back as he delves into the truth of his great grandfather the monster, something more difficult than it seems. It’s scarily easy to make exceptions for the appalling people we are descended from, while basking in the glory of worthy and famous ancestors – even though in the latter their successes are nothing to do with us and in the former in a case like this there is, and should be, an understanding of wider white guilt and responsibility.
And always there, in the American South, are questions about what is inherited – can we untangle ourselves from those who are evil? Especially when part of what Wilkerson has inherited is the privilege of simply being white, which meant that there was enough information out there about his murderous great grandfather to actually make the film?