Cutting through political talking points to focus on facts and firsthand accounts, “Under the Gun” is an essential primer on the rise of gun violence in the U.S. With this follow-up to the food-industry takedown “Fed Up,” director Stephanie Soechtig again proves her knack for crafting advocacy docs that resonate. One of four films in this year’s Sundance lineup to deal explicitly with mass shootings, “Gun” acknowledges the solutions to this ongoing problem are neither easy nor obvious, while persuasively arguing that more, surely, can be done. With the right handling, the passionate pic could easily surpass “Fed Up’s” solid $1.5 million domestic gross.
Like its predecessor, “Under the Gun” potently combines statistics, expert commentary and personal stories into a well-researched and easy-to-consume piece of nonfiction filmmaking. It’s not necessarily artful, but it’s also never less than compelling. If anything, Soechtig has only refined her skills at packaging a slick, audience-friendly documentary with a subject that feels even more urgent.
The core frustration fueling this film is one shared by many Americans: Even after an event as horrific as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Congress demonstrated its complete impotence in dealing with the issue. When a popular bill mandating near-universal background checks on gun purchases died in the Senate, it was a wake-up call for many. The steady pace of mass shootings since has only underscored the urgency of finding grassroots solutions to the problem.
Sandy Hook parents Mark and Jackie Barden, who lost their youngest son, Daniel, in the shooting (and are also featured in Kim A. Snyder’s more elegiac Sundance premiere, “Newtown”), are the first among many family members of gun-violence victims profiled by Soechtig and returning “Fed Up” narrator-host-exec producer Katie Couric. There’s more than just tragedy uniting the diverse group — from urban Chicago mother Pamela Bosley, whose son is one of numerous black youths in the city whose murders remain unsolved, to conservative gun owners Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed at the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Each of these grieving parents has been rallied into action, and seeing their stories may have a similar effect on viewers.
Again and again, the film’s boogeyman is the National Rifle Assn. Soechtig is careful to draw a distinction between the lobbying org’s leadership, who have close ties to gun manufacturers and actively work to block the most common-sense attempts at gun regulation, and the rank-and-file membership, who are presented as more supportive of responsible measures (like background checks) in national polls and man-on-the-street interviews.
While “Under the Gun” is firmly on the side of stronger gun regulations, it’s not anti-gun. There’s an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, and time taken to explain why common refrains by the opposition — that certain government leaders want to take away everyone’s guns, the real problem is about mental health and not guns, or that the only way to prevent gun violence is to own a gun — are easier said than defended with factual information.
But the goal here isn’t to change minds; it’s to reignite the anger of the silent majority — those familiar feelings that bubble up and then dissipate whenever another mass shooting occurs. “Under the Gun” understands the typical cycle of shock, outrage, hopelessness and complacency that follows such events in the 24-hour news cycle and aims to channel those initial instincts into action.
By focusing on the specific (and frequently heartbreaking) stories of the aforementioned parents, former Congresswoman and gun-violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords, and Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts — who was motivated to action by Newtown and unwittingly sparked a grassroots movement on Facebook — the film lays out the gaping holes in the system where regulations are needed, and offers hopeful examples of activism in the face of what often feels like an insurmountable problem.
Film Review: 'Under the Gun'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 26, 2016. Running time: 110 MIN.
Production: (Documentary) An Atlas Films presentation. Produced by Olivia Ahnemann, Joshua Kunau, Kristin Lazure, Stephanie Soechtig. Executive producers, Katie Couric, Regina Scully, Michelle Walrath, Michael Walrath.
Crew: Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Written by Brian Lazarte, Mark Monroe, Soechtig. Camera (color, HD), Josh Salzman; editor, Brian Lazarte; music, Brian Tyler; music supervisor, Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Tim Chau, Matt Vowles; associate producer, Carly Palmour.
With: Mark Barden, Jackie Barden, Pamela Bosley, Shannon Watts, Richard Martinez, Sandy Phillips, Lonnie Phillips, Gabrielle Gifford, Mark Kelly, Victoria Montgomery, Michael Pfleger, Mark Follman, William Vizzard, Robyn Thomas, Tom Diaz, Michael Waldman, Richard Feldman, Robin Kelly. Narrator: Katie Couric.
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In “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin wrote that “to accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it.” He knew that the superstitious fear of being swallowed up, the dread of giving up a fantasy of innocence, is precisely what keeps so many white Americans from confronting the uglier aspects of the nation’s legacy.
Travis Wilkerson, a documentary filmmaker whose roots are in small-town Alabama, attempts just such a reckoning in “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” The movie, a scorching and rigorous essay on memory and accountability, is neither a profession of guilt nor a performance of virtue. Though his inquiry is intensely, at times painfully personal, Mr. Wilkerson is above all concerned with unpacking the mechanisms of racial domination. The procedure is akin to performing surgery on a half-conscious subject, or digging up a buried land mine that has lost little of its explosive power.
The focus of his excavation is a killing that took place in Dothan, Ala., in 1946, when S.E. Branch, a white shopkeeper, shot Bill Spann, a black man who was in his store. Branch, Mr. Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, was charged with first-degree murder, but no trial was ever held, and the crime faded from memory. Or rather, the memory of it was quietly and systematically suppressed. All that remains are a short newspaper article and a few photographs and home movies of the killer.
“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” proceeds on several parallel tracks. Mr. Wilkerson returns to Alabama and tries to discover both how Bill Spann died and how he was forgotten. His investigation, accompanied by haunting images of Southern back roads and quiet houses, is punctuated by reminders that Bill Spann’s death is hardly a unique or anomalous event. The names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and other recent victims of racist violence appear onscreen, and two songs of protest loop into the soundtrack: Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” and Phil Ochs’s “William Moore.”
That song, about a white postal worker and civil rights activist murdered on an Alabama highway in 1963, is the source of the film’s title and a part of its wider cultural context. “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” is a passionately political film, aflame with rage in spite of its director’s measured, ruminative tone of voice. It is also a horror movie, full of specters and silences and a terror that is pervasive, intimate and elusive.
Mr. Wilkerson, whose previous films include “An Injury to One” and “Far From Afghanistan,” dispenses with many of the usual techniques of historical documentary. There are a few on-camera interviews, with neighbors and relatives, but more frequently Mr. Wilkerson narrates encounters that took place off camera. And his sleuthing often leads not to moments of revelation but to dead ends and deeper mysteries. The insertion of clips from “To Kill a Mockingbird” provides a chilling and ironic counterpoint to the grim story this movie is telling. S.E. Branch is the opposite of Gregory Peck’s brave and decent Atticus Finch, and the truth about what happened to Bill Spann resists the kind of redemptive, healing conclusion that remains a cornerstone of American racial fantasy.
Instead of consolation, Mr. Wilkerson offers commitment. Instead of idealism, honesty. He doesn’t suppose that his film will solve anything, but there is nonetheless something profoundly useful about the way he confronts past and present manifestations of white supremacy. He links his great-grandfather’s crime to the contemporaneous gang rape of Recy Taylor (the subject of an excellent recent documentary by Nancy Buirski), and uncovers patterns of abuse within his family. He corresponds with a relative who is part of a white nationalist, “Southern secessionist” group. He notes the way racial injustice dwells in apparently mundane facts. The killer is immortalized in pictures and a well-kept tombstone. His victim has been almost entirely erased from memory, a kind of second death beyond the reach of redress or revenge.Continue reading the main story