“Trust me when I say this is not a white saviour story. This is a white nightmare story.”
I’m gonna hear about nothing but white people for 2 hours, aren’t I? Yes. Yes you are. Correct.
Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? is an achingly obvious self-indulgent documentary whose alternate title may have been I’m One Of The Good White People, I Swear. Its subject matter is the murder of Bill Spann by the filmmaker’s great-grandfather in the 1940s, which was allowed to go unpunished by the law. But it is the filmmaker who is the main character in this film, his journey, his identity, while Bill Spann remains an absence, a prop used to tell this tale.
Shot in an almost music video style, it has all the self-awareness of Kony 2012. The filmmaker narrates with the low growl of Rorschach from The Watchmen. He fills the almost total absence of content on what seems like a failed project with hours of artistically shot nothing while he narrates in a spiky whisper his own denunciation of racism like a first year college student discovering life is unfair for the first time.
The opening 10 minutes is cuts of To Kill A Mockingbird with an Instagram filter over it, setting the tone of lazy and obvious for the rest of this film. Visually, the film was full of stylistic choices that were irritating as fuck. Like having the title show on screen 4 times throughout the movie, once at the beginning, then about an hour in, then an hour and a half in, then at the end. At one point, the guy goes to film in a Klan-controlled town, where he shoots the sweeping branches of the trees, and then, just in case you missed his point, he transposes Billie Holliday’s face over them, singing Strange Fruit, but with the audio looped backwards, and I just thought, “FUCK OFF”.
But I didn’t just object to it because of the style of presentation. It is a surprisingly empty film. After 4 years of research, the guy uncovered virtually nothing about the crime or its aftermath. Now a valid point could be made with that – that oppression exists in silence and must remain invisible, so much so it can erase its crimes from history; that black lives matter so little they can not only be wiped out with impunity, but disappeared from history. But that does not require a feature length movie to say and it is not what the 2 hours of this film are filled with. It is a film that starts with a paper clipping and a death certificate, and ends 2 hours later with a paper clipping, a death certificate and a panning shot of the area where the victim is likely to be buried. So what the fuck are you filling your time with?
“This is the story of two families. One white. One black. One is murdered and buried in an unmarked mass grave. And one is filming it and being paid to do it. Is there any better definition of racism than that?”
How about making a movie about the murder of a black guy and still making it all about yourself?
I cannot begin to emphasise just how much the filmmaker centres this film on his own experience. There are interviews with precisely 2 black people in this feature-length documentary examining racism. Even if there was nowhere for Bill Spann’s story to go, the evidence just wasn’t there, it could have been pushed wider, given a wider context of the times by examining similar incidents in those years. Instead it collapses in on itself, becoming a slew of home movies and photos and footage of himself at Black Lives Matter rallies. In all this there is just a constant repetition of one desperately-made impression: This isn’t me. I’m not like this. I’m one of the good ones.
Despite the fact that one thing this film can definitely be said to say is that the South, and America at large, needs to own its past, needs to recognise that racism is a component of it and always has been, the filmmaker spends all his time distancing himself as far as he can from this racist great-grandfather, casting himself as the polar opposite to that which he is exposing. While it is good that he recognises the white privilege he has been born with – his great-grandfather was a murderer and his family suffered no adverse economic impact or social castigation or public shame – how he feels about that, his need to atone or apologise or purge or whatever, comes to eclipse the actual man who lost his life and what should be his place in the centre of this narrative.
“This is the story of two families. One white. One black.” he says in the voice of Bruce Willis from Sin City saying, “An old man dies. A young girl lives. Fair trade.” Yet this is not really the story of two families, it is the story of one. No relative of Bill Spann is ever found. No friend or friend of a friend. No one in the community where he lived, worked and died can recall him or is willing to speak about it. As a film, it largely fails in its stated intent.
The last 20 minutes of the film are of an uninterrupted shot of the drive down the road William Moore, a white martyr to Civil Rights cause, was murdered on. The invited comparison is wearisome. The filmmaker makes sure to tell us he’s being followed by the Klan now. He seems more validated by the experience than he is scared. While I understand that being followed by a car full of hostile strangers is intimidating, there is something offensively shameless about mentioning it in the same shot of the road where a man was not simply intimidated, but brutally murdered. Even at a murder site, the narrator needs the attention to be on himself.
Also in the last 20 minutes of this film is all the actual meat of the piece, what the other hour and a half should have been filled with. The filmmaker uses it to mention the rumours he came across, other things he heard but wasn’t able to establish facts or evidence for. With that attitude and as a footnote, he mentions that his great-grandfather molested and raped two of his granddaughters. He subjected his wife to a lifetime of abuse and treated her “no better than a slave”. This misogyny is almost held apart from the rest of the film, lest his polemic on race be contaminated with a secondary issue. Instead of perhaps the one issue, the right of white men to commit innumerable crimes and get away with it. And while the exercise of white privilege might have left him a well-off, professional, internationally recognised filmmaker, it left the women in the family raped and beaten.
I feel sorry for the victims, of his great-grandfather, of anyone. I feel sorry for the families left behind. But I also understand that sorry doesn’t change anything. It does not raise the dead. It does not heal the grieving. It doesn’t pay for a coffin or bury the dead.
And in many cases the need to say sorry is greater than the need to hear it. As with this film, the filmmaker fills all the space with his need for atonement until none is actually left for the victim himself.
To conclude, this movie is everything it sets out to deny, an exercise in white privilege to use Bill Spann as a vehicle for the filmmaker’s construction of his self-image. A disappointing lost opportunity.