Justine Smith


Travis Wilkerson: ‘There’s a tremendous opportunity for social change right now’

The radical director of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? talks race and legacy in America.

On 20 January, 2017 Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Before a crowd of disputed size, Trump spoke of inner-cities and “American carnage” – a dog whistle to his voters who upheld him as a white correction to the previous eight years. In a piece for The Atlantic entitled The First White President, Ta-Nehsi Coates wrote, “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” That same night in Sundance, CO, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, equipped with a microphone, script and a laptop, gave a live multimedia performance of his own white nightmare.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a personal investigation into Wilkerson’s family as he reckons with the effects of a 1940s shooting in rural Alabama when his great-grandfather, SE Branch, shot to death a black man, Bill Spann, and never saw any legal consequences. Using home-video footage, musical interruptions and talking heads interviews Wilkerson’s film is an exploration of whiteness.

Wilkerson’s narration dominates the film, a relaxed droning that projects false authority and is continually disrupted. It examines how the death of a black patriarch was an erasure and his great-grandfather’s crime benefitted his family. A treatment of the private face of racism, Wilkerson connects his own family experience to threads of structural violence that persist today. It is a film that searches for the private face of American racism and it’s ugly continuity within the American identity. Wilkerson presented his film at this year’s Montreal International Documentary Film Festival, where he sat down with LWLies to discuss his work, Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, Charlottesville and more.

LWLies: What motivated you to make this film?

Wilkerson: When I very first started it, I didn’t have a wider agenda. I strange because although this story is was very connected to my family, it reminded me of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman cases. There were so many little details, because of course my great-grandfather was not law enforcement but he had the protection of law enforcement. This was not a police killing but the set of circumstances are very similar. I was really intrigued by that dimension of it. I certainly had no notion of making something that would end up functioning like this.

Within the US, we have this strange inability to be honest and sober and real about history. Even someone like Obama, who in many ways is much more progressive than what we are facing right now, he still went to Hiroshima and couldn’t say, ‘I’m sorry that we dropped a nuclear bomb on your city.’ We can’t do that, even now. America is such a powerful country, but our inability to acknowledge our errors is a tremendous sign of weakness to me. It’s a sign of dishonesty and cowardice.

In what ways do you think America fails to deal with its past?

One of the things I’ve wrestled with a great deal with this year is my father’s death in April from a cancer related to Agent Orange. He was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. In a weird way, Vietnam has always hovered over my family. My mom was from Alabama, my dad was a Vietnam vet, and those two things –racism and war – were discussed everyday in our house. We engaged with it all the time. It’s been a strange experience to have this confrontation where I’m looking at what my father went through and imagining how it extends to millions of Vietnamese people.

The Ken Burns’ film is a kind of disaster to me, the notion that you would want to create this incredibly long and elaborate document full of facts. It’s the same way he approaches the Civil War: fundamentally its entire analysis is, ‘What a tragic shame, it’s just tragic.’ No! It was a criminal war from the beginning. French colonialism collapses, the US jumps in and tries to play this role. It’s actually very simple, the US involvement begins at [the Battle of] Dien Bien Phu. The main thing about that film to me, is that its focus is equally split between the trauma of Americans and the trauma of the Vietnamese. He wanted to show the wounds of the war among Americans being healed finally, but part of the problem is that there still isn’t any real engagement with how catastrophic our involvement was.

Do you see a connection with your film and the audiovisual environment of 2017, where we share images of black death and suffering on social media?

Showing those images is actually counterproductive. What it does is it gives the viewer – who should be feeling empathy – an understanding of their relationship to the violence. Once they see those images, which are so horrifying, their feelings are affected negatively – in a sense their feelings are hurt by what they see. When they see them, they shut down and instead of recognising their relationship to the violence, they feel that they themselves are a victim of the violence.

I always go back to the Rodney King tape, which is really the first famous video footage of an act of violence. The cops actually used the video in their defence because they showed it over and over and over again to the jury, until they were no longer horrified by it – they became numb to it. And they would say, ‘Oh look, he’s lifting his arm and he is trying to go at them’. So the objective evidence became very subjective and became deeply interconnected to racism and how we receive a black person who is resisting violence and that is how they are exonerated. I feel like we are doing all these things with all these instances of violence, we consume and disseminate it in a way that makes us numb to it.

How do you feel about the events of Charlottesville and the current political climate, has it changed your relationship to the film?

It hasn’t exactly changed my relationship to the film for the simple reason that what happened in Charlottesville – horrific though it was – was not much of a rupture to me because of my existing interest in activism and politics. I have been thinking about these things for a long time. For example, the infamous Greensboro Massacre, in which five people were killed in a rally against the Klan, I was 11 or 12 when that happened, I was already in a family where there was a lot of political engagement so we talked about it. So [Charlottesville] just felt like a re-emergence as opposed to a fundamental shift.

I think right now there is a tremendous opportunity for social change, but I am also really worried about. I feel like we’re at this tipping point where things could dramatically go in an even worse direction, or they could go in better direction. Going through the process of this film and seeing its reception – where on one hand a lot of people have engaged with it positively and see it as a progressive act, and others less so – seems to be shutting down discourse.

In the time that I’ve been showing the film there have been a number of instances of art engaging with history in a certain way – I’m thinking of the Whitney Biennale controversy and also what happened with Sam Durand up at the Walker Art Centre in Minnesota, where he built a sculpture pertaining to the history of lynchings within Minnesota. And then there’s the recent controversy surrounding the University of Indiana and the Thomas Hart Benton mural, which deals with the history of Indiana. It is an extraordinary mural and there is a section an unequivocal criticism of the Klan, yet some students are saying that it should be taken down because it hurts the feelings of those affected by that violence.

How will the most racist communities benefit if we simply stop engaging with the history of their oppression? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be highly conscious of the way we do it – we can’t just mindlessly and go about depicting black suffering – but we need to depict our role in that terrible history so that we can address it in a meaningful way.

Why do you think some people are unwilling to talk about the film when the events took place so long ago and nearly everyone involved is dead?

It’s something I cannot fully answer. Honestly, when I began to work on this… I don’t want to say that I thought that people would be more forthcoming but I guess in some sense I did. What you said is so valid – everyone is dead, it’s not as if SE Branch is going to be tried, he was gone when I was a little baby. What is the fear? What is the fear in being honest now and being sober now when something is so many decades over? That’s where this continuity of history becomes a powerful force, because you are saying that it’s not really not about back then, it’s about right now. That’s why it’s so uncomfortable for people, because things haven’t changed.

I don’t know Alabama that well. I went there often as a child but when I returned 20 years later as an adult I was stunned at how in small-town Alabama it might as well be 1955: the social relations seemed utterly unchanged. Are we supposed to dislocate it and say, ‘That’s Alabama!’ This is where I get into challenges with my own film, because part of the problem for me is that northerners look at it and say, ‘Oh my god, those southerners are so awful!’ That is how Americans read it.

Do you think there will ever be a major social shift, where people will be able to face the reality of their country’s statehood?

It’s obviously a very difficult question and it’s hard for me to answer. When we think about what’s happening with regards to gender relations in the entertainment industry, we seem to be in a state of flux around the discussion of culpability and responsibility. The cascading of these revelations reveals something else to me, which is that when every significant figure is in some way interconnected it becomes a systematic problem. It is not a few bad apples, as many people have said of the police violence issue.

Perhaps we’re now entering a period in which that shift could take place. Where people who are connected to oppression in the sense that they benefit from it – even if they aren’t actively participating in it – will take an active role in denouncing it, in addressing it, in confronting it and in changing it. The notion that the oppressed have all the responsibility to decry and to respond to this issue is just insane to me. Of course, the voices of the oppressed are the most important, but the only way we can move forward is to listen to the voices of the oppressors who then take a stand against that same oppression.

Are you working on any new projects?

It’s funny, I always am, except right now. This project really drained the tank for me. I think because it was so internal, so family oriented and honestly just uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting in any way I was a victim of it, but it hasn’t been a pleasant experience for me. I’ve started working on a treatment for a narrative film about a Nepalese immigrant who runs a store in a town that I lived in. It’s a personal film about loneliness. I’m not sure when I’ll shoot that yet, and there are a few other things I’m interested in.

I recently discovered that the word ‘predator’ actually has the same latin origin as ‘plunder’. That unsettles me, because when I think of predator I think of a shark or a wolf, and plunder is theft, so it can only refer to a species that has the concept of property. But a wolf is not stealing anything, a wolf is hunting. It’s interesting that we’ve managed to dislocate a word that specifically refers to human beings and use it to suggest something animalistic. I’m interested in the history of plundering because it is the foundation of the United States.

Published 3 Dec 2017

Tags: Travis Wilkerson

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