Spike Lee has been cranking out films that have seemed less than inspired for the last few years, from the uneven He Got Game to the pointless Summer of Sam to the unbelievably bad Girl 6. Somewhere along the way, however, he quietly directed one of the most beautiful, emotional, and heart-wrenching films of his varied career: The documentary 4 Little Girls (1997). While the focus of 4 Little Girls is on the horrific 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the film is really a primer in high- and low-points of the civil rights movement. Lee turns an unblinking eye on the wide variety of personalities and events that shaped that era. He interviews the families of the girls killed in the blast with sympathy and sensitivity. All of the family members, from parents to siblings, aunts and uncles are clearly still emotionally tethered to the deaths caused by the bombing. During an era where violence on blacks was a common sight, including police attacks in the streets with high-pressure water hoses and snarling dogs, the cowardly bombing on an active church on a Sunday morning stood out. The girls became symbols for the struggle and their families were deeply changed.
Chris and Maxine McNair, parents of Denise McNair, strike especially sad figures as they recall their young child during happier times. Other notable interviewees include civil rights activists Fred Shuttlesworth and Wyatt Tee Walker.
Lee also allows the opposition a voice, including Arthur Hanes Jr., an attorney who defended one of the bombers (The lawyer cheerfully brags that Alabama was a great place to raise a family during the fifties while Lee shows Klansmen burning crosses), and former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace who, as a politician, was a fierce supporter of racism (The platform on which he ran for office was "Segregation now, Segregation forever.") The Wallace interview is notorious since the senile Wallace's mental state had deteriorated to the point that he looks utterly pathetic. Critics called Lee a manipulator who took advantage of the old man. I tend to think that Lee did the right thing. Wallace was a nightmare for a large number of his constituents and history must record his downfall. Lee gave Wallace the opportunity to speak for himself and explain his horrendous actions. It's not Lee's fault that Wallace, who has since died, was unable to make himself clear, only repeatedly dragging his black male nurse in front of the camera to try to show that he is not racist and that his very best "friend" is black. The man has such a hardened put-upon look on his face, that you can read his entire take on Wallace's condescending excuses without the man saying a word.
The bombing itself is handled with care but Lee also manages to build some suspense. His use of the morgue photos of the girls is shocking and effective. Just as they were key in building a hatred of the bomber among the jury in court, they are instrumental here in making the viewer truly feel the magnitude of the crime. When the images of the girls destroyed bodies appear on the screen it's like a kick in the gut. When one of the mothers, during a tour of her daughter's carefully preserved toys, suddenly unwraps a large chunk of brick that had to be removed from her child's skull I just felt sick with sadness. At various points during the film I found myself near tears and can't imagine a human being who would not be outraged by this act.
4 Little Girls only goes a little off its mission when Lee brings in some famous faces like Bill Cosby and Rev. Jesse Jackson to draw parallels between the bombing of the Birmingham church and the church burnings that became common in the mid-nineties. It's distracting to bring in someone like Cosby just for a quick sound-bite when Lee could probably have covered that territory with the interview subjects he had been using all along. His coverage of the belated trial of one of the bombers feels tacked on. Even though it is necessary, it could have been integrated into the film better.
Minor criticisms aside, 4 Little Girls is an excellent documentary on a tragic moment that defined one of the major divides in our society.
4 Little Girls was produced by HBO but Lee doesn't allow it to settle into tv-talking head doldrums. He mixes plenty of archival footage in with the interviews and creates a nice collage-like feel. This method emphasizes that, while a part of history, these events are very much alive and should not be thought of just as textbook lessons.
The transfer is fine. It is full-screen and the colors have a muted earth-tone look that sets the right somber note.
The audio, like the video, is made up from various sources. It can be a little uneven at times (I used the English subtitles sporadically) but it functions well. Terence Blanchard's score isn't as prominently distracting as some of his others, like Clockers, which was so busy it nearly derailed the movie.
The main extra is a short "making of" segment that has some real insights from Lee, Chris McNair, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Lee discusses how he knew that his film would not win the Oscar for best documentary when he read that a Holocaust doco was nominated and that he was sure he'd lose when he found out that that film was produced by a rabbi. His comments are blunt but honest. McNair, however, points out that there is a reason for the endless stream of Holocaust documentaries, which is to never let anyone forget what horrors were inflicted and, in that respect, 4 Little Girls should never let anyone forget what happened right here in our own country.
Although no mention is made on the box, the "making of" segment also includes the uncut Wallace interview, an invaluable addition that Lee probably included as a response to those who claimed he somehow wronged Wallace. Lee's attitude is basically that Wallace made his bed and that he should get to lie in it. I can't say I disagree.
There are also some text-based info screens, including an update on the reopening of the case after the film's release that led to the indictment of two more men, some 36 years after the crime. It is clearly too late for justice to be done, but at least it shows that someone was paying attention.
4 Little Girls is a well-made and emotionally engaging look at a tumultuous time that definitely deserves a look from anyone who values the ideals upon which this country is based. It is not an easy ride and the lesson to be learned is that we still have a long way to go, but the journey is important and needs to be made. And Lee, the director of some of the most complex and interesting films about race ever made, films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Get on the Bus, is the right filmmaker to make that journey.