Opening Thursday and playing through the weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is Travis Wilkerson’s first-person documentary about the murder of a black man in Alabama. The victim, Bill Spann, was killed in a grocery store in Dothan by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who was initially charged with murder for the crime but the charges quickly disappeared. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson heads home for the first time in a long while to investigate his ancestor, his victim, the town, and the history and mechanics of white supremacy and its persistence into the present day.
At just about every stop in his investigation, Wilkerson is stymied. The environment of Dothan, along with neighboring towns that may have some connection to the events, has changed over the past 70 years, although not as much one might expect (at least where I’m from, in the West, change is a constant: the parts of Spokane I grew up in are unrecognizable today, let alone how the city would have looked to my grandparents in the 1940s). The physical persistence of the past is captured in black and white static images: old houses, ominous streets, blossoming yet menacing trees, a strip mall city hall, a fateful store counter. These constitute tangible evidence of more spectral ideological hauntings: a great aunt who has become a Southern Nationalist, creepy teens in cars following nosy outsiders, and a conspiracy of silence over a long-forgotten crime: witnesses who refuse to speak, government documents disappeared, the town hospital gone to ruin, a cemetery of unmarked graves. What Wilkerson does find is disturbing in its banality: old home movies of his great-grandfather, looking no more sinister than anyone else and a death certificate horrifying in its stark, uninquisitive language.
Wilkerson narrates with a deep voice hinting at contained rage and only occasionally do any other voices enter the film. His mother and aunts write him letters about his great-granfather, revealing new, undiscovered crimes, but he reads them himself. The current neighbor of the family’s old store (since sold and resold and now a kind of speakeasy) speaks on camera for a bit, and Wilkerson gives over ten minutes or so to a rambling, fascinating monologue by Ed Vaughn, a civil rights leader and resident of Dothan, who nonetheless can provide few details on the crime itself. Instead Vaughn helps bring to life a period of American history the feeling of which we have willfully forgotten in favor of belief in our own (that is to say, White America’s) heroic progress, while the terror of racism, along with the identities of its victims and the activists who worked to upend it, are conveniently shuttered away (there’s an interesting side story about Rosa Parks and her activism long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott with victims of racist and sexual violence in Alabama, work which is usually left out of the standard narrative about Parks). The story is framed by a discussion of Atticus Finch, with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, standard images int he beginning, describing Harper Lee’s character for what he has become, a “secular saint”. The film ends with red-tinged negatives of that same footage, as Wilkerson describes Lee’s revision of her character in Go Tell a Watchman, the private, racist face of Finch (of America) exposed underneath the public virtue. Punctuating the narrative are names of victims of white brutality: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bill Spann, accompanied by Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”. It isn’t as effective as Raoul Peck’s insertion of modern protest footage into his James Baldwin doc I Am Not You Negro, but it makes the point. What Wilkerson discovers, what we probably have always known, but rarely have acknowledged, is that that past hasn’t passed, that the legacy of white supremacy lives on and its effects are still being felt. That the very fact that S.E. Branch has a great grandson and Bill Spann does not is proof.