Spike Lee has directed twenty-two features since his New York University film school days, yet only once has the Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures nominated one of his films for the best of its genre. Surprisingly, this distinction goes to his lone documentary feature, 4 Little Girls, an intriguing deeper examination of the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. As Walter Cronkite relates, the ugly murder of the four young girls during their Sunday School class marked a moment when Americans could no longer passively look away from the blatant racism taking place. Likewise, the Academy could no longer ignore Lee's thorough treatment, a clear example that film auteurs can handle a variety of genres when inspired.
Despite its power, 4 Little Girls wasn't destined to win the top documentary film. But Lee takes that in stride, considering the nature of the competition, as he humorously explains his lack of disappointment to Entertainment Weekly at the time:
" Because one of the films was a Holocaust film (The Long Way Home). I think 15 or 16 Holocaust films have won the short and feature-length categories. I'd rather be the Knicks playing the Bulls at the United Center down by 20 with 10 minutes left--those odds are better than going against a Holocaust film."
Lee received far greater rewards for his heart-wrenching documentary--the best type of recognition for any documentarian of social/political issues. Two months after the film's release, the FBI re-opened its investigation of the bombing, claiming receipt of new evidence, and less than two years after indicted surviving suspects Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry on eight counts of first degree murder. Although Cherry was found too mentally incompetent to stand trial, Blanton was convicted and is now serving a life sentence--delayed justice, but a positive postscript to Lee's excellent film.
On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
Beginning with Joan Baez's rendition of Richard Farina's plaintiff "Birmingham Sunday" as background music, Lee's camera prepares the viewer with poignant shots of the individual graves of the four girls, juxtaposed with their innocent wide-eyed photographs, archived footage, and present day memorial to the fateful event. Late in the film come the shocking morgue photos that may be too intense for some viewers (you can imagine the damage that a dozen sticks of dynamite can do at close range), but Lee tastefully leaves them only on screen briefly. What Lee accomplishes best is to personalize the girls--Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carol Robinson--through intimate recollections from family, neighbors, and friends and through photographs and home movies.
And people all over the earth turned around.
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
Filled with grief at the time of the bombing, no one in the black community of Birmingham conveyed the type of personal touch that the healing passage of time now affords. Still when Cynthia Wesley's sister begins reading a journal entry from her mother recalling Cynthia's slip showing beneath the yellow dress she wore to church that day, her carefully planned formal reading breaks down into tears. Many other scenes reveal the personal side to each of the girls, placing a real face on what most of us have only known as a news event or historical happening. Surviving friends and relatives describe how sensitive Denise once held a "bird funeral," how shy Cynthia was adopted by a school principal and his wife, and how outgoing Carol was active in girl scouts and played clarinet. The biggest tragedy remains how three fourteen year old girls and one eleven-year-old had their lives cut short by complete strangers, simply due to the color of their skin--a truly hideous hate crime.
Standing out are Denise's parents, Chris and Maxine McNair, who Spike Lee had contacted many years before about the possibility of making a film, knowing that the husband was the key figure in the community. With his trust and blessing, others likewise cooperate, and to make such a sensitive film requires great collaboration and complete trust in the filmmaker. Particularly touching is Chris' narrative about the time that he had to explain to his daughter that he couldn't buy her a hamburger at the local drugstore because she was black. As the leader among the parents of the victim Chris McNair is the man that Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley consulted when successfully prosecuting "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss in 1977.
Sometimes things just take time, and the same goes for the film itself. Fortunately, Lee never got around to making his first film about Birmingham because his experience allows a far stronger treatment. Not content to present a narrow focus, Lee lends more meaning to the inadvertent sacrifice by tying the bombing with the larger Civil Rights landscape, interviewing political leaders, lawyers, and various prominent people in the Movement.
The background information clearly explains why Birmingham became such a focal point, with its working class mentality, long tradition of labor violence, all clouded by the old South rural racism that streamed into the industrial city. In a city where Jim Crow ruled and a third of the police force were associated with the KKK, bombings had become commonplace on Dynamite Hill in the black community. Naturally, Lee includes many of the commonly seen archive accounts of Bull Conner, his vicious German shepherds, and rampaging firehoses, but what sets 4 Little Girls apart from the standard documentary are the additional details supplied by the people who went through the ordeal.
Although Lee largely stays in the background, his cynical humor shines through early when Circuit Judge Arthur Hanes Jr. (former defense attorney for Chambliss) explains how the 1950's were a quiet time in Birmingham--"a wonderful place to live and raise a family." As Hanes talks, Lee pulls out some classic "Michael Moore" techniques, juxtaposing 1950's imagery of the KKK marching downtown and an image of a lynching before transitioning to various black community members explain how horrible life was back then with its segregated cabs, bus station bathrooms, and water fountains.
More ironic humor, mixed with unspoken anger emerges in a bizarre sequence with George Wallace, most infamous for his "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" speech and blocking the doorway at the University of Alabama. Now old and infirm, the pathetic former governor awkwardly drags his personal assistant out for Lee's camera three times, claiming the black man is his "best friend." You can feel Spike's eyes rolling back as Wallace lamely trots out the standard denials, and his inclusion of the former Alabama governor makes sense. Less so are sequences with Bill Cosby, Reggie White, and Ossie Davis, who all had nothing to do with Birmingham and little to add to the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South--all are better known as acquaintances and friends of Lee, and each trots out his own well known agenda.
Inclusion of New York Times editor Howell Raines is puzzling, though he adds significant sociological content about the old days in Birmingham. From later context, it appears that the "Yankee" editor may have local southern roots, but Lee doesn't establish Raines' connection to give him more credibility. But these are small quibbles in light of one of the most effective documentaries about Civil Rights ever constructed. Before seeing 4 Little Girls, I only had vague notions about the four victims--but now and forevermore, images of Denise, Cynthia, Addie Mae, and Carol along with their families and friends come as vividly to mind as Bull Conner's firehoses.