Dir. Travis Wilkerson
Another day, another documentary that is a better story than a film. Wilkerson is very much the central character in this documentary, more so than his great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, or the Black man who Branch murdered, Bill Spann. I suppose in any documentary where the filmmaker has this close a connection to the story which s/he’s engaged in telling, the risk is that s/he’ll be the main character anyway. What makes him that way here is his narration, which I think the viewer either has to enjoy for its gruff rumbling quality or basically dismiss as “podcast with production values” style. The art of narrating your own documentary is a tricky one. For every weirdo like me who loves Mark Cousins’ random cadence in The Story of Film, there’s a normie like my wife who finds it so offputting she can’t watch it. Guy Maddin leans all the way into performance in a film like My Winnipeg, where he finds ways to make the word “lap” uncomfortable beyond any Manitoban’s dreams. Then there’s Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, which is written by Morrison but eschews actual verbal narration for the text on screen. Wilkerson has chosen something which draws just as much attention to his narration as Cousins or Maddin does, but it is so tonally jarring that it frequently derails the movie, making the story less about a heinous crime born of a heinous system and more about the revelation of that crime. One of the keys of Wilkerson’s film is that the Spann family appears to have been wiped off the map in the wake of the murder of Bill Spann. He says he called every Spann he could find in the phone book in the Dothan area and could not find anyone related to Bill; a private investigator he hired said that he could find proof of S.E. Branch’s lineage but, like Wilkerson, could not find Spann’s family. There’s a scathing power in this discussion of these two family trees, one of them planted deeper in the wake of wickedness and another, to the best of our understanding, totally uprooted. I can’t help but wonder if this would be more powerful and scathing still if Wilkerson had not adapted such a stagey voice for recounting all this. (A quick YouTube shows that Wilkerson’s voice definitely has some gravel in it, but it’s been definitely been given a little extra oomph for the film.)
Is it Wilkerson’s fault that he’s made, in essence, a true crime documentary after the true crime podcast has exploded past parody? Not only is it not his fault, but there are clear differences between something like S-Town and Did You Wonder. S-Town is set up to be a mystery. It’s made with those dramatic fallouts in mind, as when John B. turns out to have committed suicide after a couple episodes of the podcast have led us to believe that he’ll be the living protagonist of the show. Did You Wonder is frank. There’s no cutesy “Well, did Branch murder Spann? I guess we’ll find out” crap in Did You Wonder. The film is explicit that Branch murdered Spann. It is clear that the fact that one man could murder another, and then the reasonably secure descendant of the murderer can make a documentary about it is a sign of America’s enduringly racist society. Wilkerson is making something more important than a true crime podcast, but if it’s a documentary I’m not sure it’s all that successful. To my eye this is a lecture series with a PowerPoint in the background, something you take to college campuses, churches, and the occasional Lions or Rotary Club. Maybe it’s an article in The Atlantic where you can get the audio version to listen to as you read. The story matters, clearly, although that observation that Wilkerson makes about the legacy of racism in America and who can prosper after a racist The filmed part—that reason for it to be a documentary rather than a lecture or an article—seems to be almost an afterthought.
As is de rigueur for documentarians telling family stories these days, home movies play a role in the early going. Where Did You Wonder differs from them is that this is emphatically the best part of the documentary. Thanks to a family member who shot some film in 1946 and 1953, Wilkerson can get some footage of Branch. He has twelve shots, basically, and these he arrays in front of us all at once, filling the screen with movement. We can spy Branch in them, and spy is the right word, for even in the color ’50s footage he is rarely the focus of the shot. Wilkerson is haunted by the first batch, for those are from the same month that Branch murdered Spann; there is no way to know if they are from the days just before or from the days just after. The stuff from the ’50s, Wilkerson says, show a different Branch, a man who looks significantly more confident and self-assured. Where the camera had made him nervous in ’46, Wilkerson suggests, in ’53 he is much more comfortable. The insinuation is that getting away with murder has made a new man of him, a man who struts and smirks where previously he had shied away from the camera, more content to let some other man or even a dog hold the camera’s gaze. This is quite an impression to get from twelve shots from two events, and when Branch’s children are alive and (more or less) available to Wilkerson, it seems like that impression is more novelistic than earned. Regrettably, this is probably the best part of the film. The reason why I’m a little focused on Wilkerson’s commentary is because it’s undercutting a remarkable choice, one reminiscent of the Eames’ Think. It demands more attention than you can give it, using those different screens to provide different ways into this thirdhand experience of S.E. Branch; it’s a dizzying choice, and then for reasons I cannot understand (drama, I guess?) Wilkerson essentializes it, reduces it rather than create a more effectively polysemous zone for his unusual dodecaoptic showcase. We might even draw a similar conclusion given more time with those twelve frames and our own minds.
A more consistently applied choice is Wilkerson’s decision to include a chant in which African-Americans who were killed by law enforcement or its offshoots, like neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and other people who should never have been famous are noted in the chant, followed by multiple repetitions of “Say his name” or “Say her name.” Wilkerson does not address these other people very much, except for Martin, whose murder stands out to him as an inspiration for the film. This is an effective choice in getting across a message which otherwise is worn uneasily on Did You Wonder, that Branch is part of a wider legacy of white supremacy enforced by murder and other similar crimes. I wish I could say the same for any number of other footnotes and parentheticals in Wilkerson’s documentary which never even pretend to be something different. Phil Ochs’ song ”William Moore” gets talked about. So does Rosa Parks’ role in investigating the gang rape of Recy Taylor. Both of these make some amount of sense—they are more or less relevant to the era, if nothing else—but I have a harder time squaring up Wilkerson’s use of Harper Lee’s novels as bookends, with Gregory Peck’s sad thinking face dominating the screen. I cannot find a person in this story who is either like Atticus Finch the god-man from To Kill a Mockingbird nor Atticus Finch the secret racist and segregationist from Go Set a Watchman. Atticus Finch is a mythic kind of figure, emphasis on the fakeness implied in “mythic,” and Did You Wonder is emphatically not about myth. This is a true story, with real stakes. The Atticus Finch stuff is the kind of thing which belongs on NPR, not in this documentary.