Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/26/07.
One of the most notable events in the history of the 20th Century was the Civil Rights Movement led by African-Americans for equal rights. While it was a movement spurned by centuries of oppression, notably in the South, it was an important moment in American history despite the race wars and prejudice in the South. One little incident that was spurned by prejudice involved the death of four little girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. In 1997, Spike Lee released a documentary about the incident that some claimed was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement entitled 4 Little Girls. The documentary reveals the events in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and the incident of the church bombing involving the death of the four little girls that caught the attention of the country.
On September 15, 1963, it was a typical Sunday morning as four little black girls were in a Baptist Church on 16th Street. Then suddenly, a bomb exploded onto the church and the four little girls were dead. Their names were Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins. The families each talk about the little girls. McNair was a young girl who held tea parties among her friends in the nice black neighborhood where her friend lived. Wesley was an adopted child that was loved by her adopted parents and was an excellent student in school. Robertson was an accomplished Girl Scouts member who has been known to do good. Collins was known as a softball player. McNair's father Chris discusses a moment when her daughter became first aware of race when she wanted a sandwich and her father went to a diner to get one but was refused because they were black.
McNair and fellow neighbors discussed the city of Birmingham as a blue-collar place where by the late 40s and into the early 1960s was a hot-bed for racially-motivated violence where a third of the police was made up of Ku Klux Klan members. The hill McNair and his neighbors lived was a nice neighborhood but would often be threatened by angry whites and bombings would be common. The police didn't help matters as the Civil Rights Movement was starting to emerge with the SCLC formed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the way. Another figure that was important in Birmingham was a preacher named Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth who was leading fellow African-Americans for equal rights in Birmingham. With help from King, Shuttlesworth continued the fight while facing opposition from the police commissioner Bull Connor but also Governor George Wallace in the 1960s. Wallace is also interviewed, a man now trying to gain redemption for his mistakes after his own assassination in the early 70s, reveals the motivation of racism.
While in the middle of all of this problems in America, the world was noticing that Birmingham was in trouble as a photo of a black man being beaten up was shown around the world. The photographer of that photo was also beaten up that same day as the camera and lens was destroyed but not the film. By August of 1963, after several moments that included the death of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. held the now famous March to Washington which was a landmark moment in American history. Then on that tragic Sunday in September, the world began to take notice where Walter Cronkite said it was where White America finally understood the hatred of the KKK. Not because of the church bombing but the fact that four little girls, three of them 14 and the other 11 being McNair had happened. It was reported all over the U.S. while many black leaders were in shock. Lillie Brown of the SCLC figured that there were two options, one was to find those who killed the little girls or to use this incident as a rallying cry for the vote of Selma that would happen in 1965.
Individual and joint funerals happened days after the tragic incident where in the joint funeral, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the people and his calm, speech helped ease the people in mourning. The late Coretta Scott King reads a letter from her late husband to one of the families expressing his remorse and offering to comfort them. Then in the late 1970s, one of the men who organized the bombing in Robert Edward Chambliss was charged based on evidence by the FBI. Then state Attorney General Bill Baxley served prosecution where fought to have Chambliss convicted and succeeded with the help of evidence and testimony including the appearance of Denise McNair’s father Chris. Chambliss was found guilty as justice was served but in Birmingham by the early 1990s, church bombings still went on.
While the film is partially about the times during the Civil Rights Movement, Lee wisely choose to tell that part of the story as background of what was going. Yet, the film is about the church bombing incident that killed four little girls. The result is a more personal yet powerful documentary that Lee presented. While the film moves back and forth from telling the personal story of the little girls to the story of what was going on in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lee’s direction doesn’t say anything new about the Civil Rights movement but the footage he uses with help from editor and co-producer Samuel Pollard reminds the audience of what was going on. The interviews with the parents, friends, and neighbors who knew the girls are insightful with wonderful camera work from Ellen Kuras. While the interviews are heartbreaking to watch, Lee wisely knows when not to close-up and give the people time to compose themselves. There’s even a scene right in the end where the relative talks about her anger and how it confuses her feelings.
Lee also interviews some famous people including the late Coretta Scott King reading a letter with footage of her late husband being a family man. Also interviewed are Andrew Davis, Fred Shuttlesworth, Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Lee regular Ossie Davis, and Walter Cronkite whose comments about the incident reveals the impact of what happened. Another famous figure that was interviewed is former Governor George Wallace who reveals his best friend, which was a black man, that shows a man still trying to redeem himself for his past actions. The figures definitely make relevant points about what happened and how they feel while the film remains engrossed in those that knew the little girls. Some of the footage that was wonderfully edited by Samuel Pollard that includes some horrific footage of the girls' bodies after the horrific incident but only in brief seconds. Lee's unique style to the documentary is noted for not just including a wonderfully haunting score from longtime composer Terence Blanchard. He also opens the film with the song Birmingham Sunday about the incident from Joan Baez that was mentioned by Bill Baxley during his trial against Chambliss. The film also includes a jazz piece from John Coltrane on the thing. The result is a sobering, emotional doc from Spike Lee.
While it's not an easy film to watch, 4 Little Girls is among of Spike Lee's great films. History buffs and those wanting to learn a bit of the Civil Rights Movement will find this film to be essential as well as educational. Fans of Spike Lee will consider this one of his masterpieces while it reveals his versatility as a filmmaker who can do both features films and some powerful documentaries. Anyone who wants to see a film about a horrible tragedy told with such sincerity and intelligence, 4 Little Girls is the film to see.
Spike Lee Films: (She’s Gotta Have It) - (School Daze) - Do the Right Thing - Mo' Better Blues - Jungle Fever - (Malcolm X) - Crooklyn - (Clockers) - (Girl 6) - (Get on the Bus) - (He Got Game) - Freak - Summer of Sam - (The Original Kings of Comedy) - (Bamboozled) - (A Huey P. Newton Story) - 25th Hour - (Jim Brown: All-American) - (She Hate Me) - (Inside Man) - (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) - (Miracle at St. Anna) - (Kobe Doin’ Work) - (Passing Strange) - (If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise) - (Red Hook Summer) - Bad 25 - Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - (Oldboy (2013 film)) - (Da Blood of Jesus) - (Chi Raq) - Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall - BlacKkKlansman
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