Debuting in a theatrical run at New York’s Film Forum to qualify for Academy Award consideration before its skedded airing on HBO this fall, “4 Little Girls, ” Spike Lee’s first documentary outing, is a compelling, straightforward account of a deeply sorrowful and pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Due to the nature of the subject and the involvement of Lee, film will receive significant attention at every stage of its career all the way through video and educational use, thus achieving its goal of drawing renewed attention to one of the numerous but lesser-known tragedies of 1963.
On Sept. 15 of that year, four black girls in their early teens were killed in their Sunday school class when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Although no one was indicted or convicted of the act until 14 years later, it was clearly a racially motivated hate crime in a city where such attacks were far from uncommon.
Beginning with the use of Joan Baez’s rendition of Richard Farina’s mournful “Birmingham Sunday,” Lee takes a conventional, talking-heads-and-archival-clips approach to the material, but rewardingly establishes an intimate connection with his subjects by devoting considerable time to the personalities and families of the four victims. Through the loving and insightful words of their parents, siblings, neighbors and friends, as wellas photographs, all four girls come vibrantly alive for the viewer, which makes the pain of their loss all the greater when the story builds to its terrible climax.
What also comes alive is the racist mentality operative in the South at the time, which was reflected in almost every aspect of daily life. Birmingham, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as probably the most segregated city in the country, had a long history of union-inspired, officially sanctioned violence, and through brief portraits of such figures as municipal public safety administrator “Bull” Conor and Gov. George Wallace, the latter seen giving his “segregation forever” inaugural speech, Lee effectively sketches the institutionalized oppression blacks were up against. (The pathetic, aged Wallace is seen here in a contempo interview repeatedly insisting that his black aide is “one of my best friends,” although his speech is so slurred that it is clarified with subtitling.)
Coincidentally, the King-led marches and demonstrations started in Birmingham at the same time and, without straying far from the immediate subject, the film extends a sufficiently wide embrace to include many of the key civil rights leaders of the period, including the Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, James Bevel, John Cross and Jesse Jackson.
Worthwhile perspectives also are offered by such distinguished commentators and historians as Howell Raines, Taylor Branch and Walter Cronkite, the latter of whom contends that it was this church bombing, more than any other single event, that awoke much of the U.S. to “the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration.”
Even taking into account the attitudes of many redneck whites, however, the notion of exploding a bomb in a church basement on a Sunday morning was senseless and mad. Agonizingly, those close to the girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11 — recall the mundane details of the day: how they were running late, what the girls were wearing, how one was excited at the prospect of working as an usher for the first time. The film soberingly, but necessarily, also includes indelible autopsy photographs to drive home the definitive brutality of the crime.
While at least 48 individuals are interviewed, perhaps the dominant figure to emerge is Christopher McNair, Carol Denise’s father, who consistently puts things in a double personal and historical perspective. He painfully recalls, for instance, the moment when he was forced to tell his hungry daughter why she couldn’t have a sandwich at a local lunch counter.
After covering the massive joint funeral, at which King spoke and which began the process of turning the girls into symbols and martyrs for the civil rights movement, Lee abruptly jumps to 1977, when a “pathological racist” named Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss finally was brought to justice for the terrorist crime. Despite repeated shots of the goonlike Chambliss leering at observers and the camera, pic scants on information regarding why it took so long to arrest him, how he finally was apprehended and what happened to the man, who is said to have been responsible for a great many bombings in Birmingham, hence his nickname.
In the end, the film achieves an admirable balance between touching personal anecdotes and the larger sociopolitical view. Smoothly made, with fine lensing by Ellen Kuras, editing by Lee’s co-producer, Sam Pollard, and musical contributions by a host of artists in addition to composer Terence Blanchard, it also lacks thestylistic idiosyncrasies for which the director is known. Lee has dedicated himself here to telling a powerful story, and he tells it well.