A major political movement has enveloped the past year in a veil of hazy darkness, according to documentarian Travis Wilkerson. The movement? Brutality. More specifically, brutality toward people of color.
Wilkerson explores this issue in his new documentary, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. He illustrates this issue through excavating an old familial murder of a black man, drawing parallels to “To Kill a Mockingbird” and noting past political movements in the southern United States.
Wilkerson has been called “the political conscience of 21st century American independent cinema” by the magazine Sight & Sound — and “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” exemplifies exactly why he has been honored as such.
In the film, Wilkerson describes the secular saint of Atticus Finch as pure fiction and juxtaposes this idea to what a “real-life” Atticus would look like. He declares Atticus to be un-human because in “To Kill a Mockingbird” he never wavers, never backs down and never contemplates his decisions — something a real person, no matter how just, would not do.
Throughout the film, he repeats “a story of two families: one white and one black,” describing how certain events destroyed the black family yet left the white family unharmed.
“It seems to me pretty clear that if you can’t take meaningful account of oppression if you can’t name and confront it; if you can’t make your position on it clear, you allow it to go on,” Wilkerson said in a statement about the film.
“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” gave me chills from fear, pain and bewilderment. The story of the documentary is told entirely with a voice-over because the film was originally created as a live performance. In these performances, Wilkerson himself was present, doing live voice-overs of his powerful imagery. Wilkerson said the main difference in altering “Did You Wonder” from performance to film was the intimacy.
“The film does its own thing and gives people a little more space to get frustrated and disagree because I’m not in the room and challenging them,” Wilkerson said.
“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” does so much in just 90 minutes, exploring racism and sexism in ways that made me writhe in my seat, and using prolonged shots of nature, tombstones, abandoned houses and other obsolete objects to elicit emotion. The film was slow-paced but intense, a combination that’s hard to achieve. Not only was it chilling, but it also felt incredibly modern.
Although the film was set in the 1940s, the murder of a black man by a white man drew connections to the types of racial injustices that exist to this day. Wilkerson included names of individuals subject to that brutality, but also launched into the future of what racism might look like in years to come. “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” stresses the need to reflect on racism, leading one to think critically about the nature of brutality and its relevance in modern society.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” opens on Wednesday, Feb. 28 and will run through March 13 at Film Forum.
Email Brooke LaMantia at [email protected]