Thursday, May 5, 2011

Spike Lee's Documentary on the Alabama Church Bombing: Four Little Girls

New York Times, Movie Review of Spike Lee's Documentary, "4 Little Girls (1997): Still Reeling From the Day Death Came to Birmingham," by Janet Maslin 9 July 1997  -- Janet Maslin writes, ''Four Little Girls'' is Spike Lee's immensely dignified and moving reassessment of a terrorist crime. This watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement, the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., left four young Sunday school students dead (the oldest were 14) and a nation galvanized by outrage and shame. Thirty-four years later, Mr. Lee and the many witnesses he interviews are able to see both the tragedy and the turning point in this event.

Rubble that killed the girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

''This was the awakening,'' says Walter Cronkite, speaking of how the bombing shocked white America as he is interviewed in Mr. Lee's first feature-length documentary, a thoughtful, graceful, quietly devastating account. It opens today at the Film Forum in order to qualify for the Academy Award consideration that it well deserves. ''Four Little Girls'' will be shown later this year on HBO.

Removal of the dead bodies of the little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Alabama, USA
As what will surely be the only Spike Lee film ever to begin with a Joan Baez record (''Birmingham Sunday,'' Richard Farina's mournful ballad about the crime), ''Four Little Girls'' starts off on an intimate note. Old photos, fond memories, childhood anecdotes are among the personal touches that help summon Carol Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14. One mother even displays her daughter's Girl Scout sash, adorned with merit badges. Nothing in the scouting credo could have helped this young girl prepare for what fate had in store.

16th Street Baptist Church after bombing

While their gentle, well-spoken friends and relatives offer thoughts about the promising lives of these schoolgirls, Mr. Lee eloquently interweaves signs of the times. An elderly neighbor recalls what it was like to steer a thirsty black child away from a whites-only water fountain; Mr. Lee juxtaposes this with a remark by Arthur Hanes Jr., a white lawyer for the convicted bomber, Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss, to the effect that Birmingham was a fine place to live.

Shirley Wesley King holds up a picture of her murdered sister, Cynthia Wesley.

And Denise McNair's father, one of the film's most affecting witnesses by virtue of his brave restraint, remembers the day Denise passed the segregated lunch counter at Kress's store and announced that the smell of frying onions made her hungry. ''I guess that was the night I made up my mind to tell her that she couldn't have that sandwich because she was black,'' Mr. McNair says simply. Throughout his interview here he maintains his proud composure, even when describing the terrible business of identifying the body of Denise with a chunk of concrete in her skull.

Mr. Lee, whose lean, straightforward documentary style loses none of his usual clarity and fire (the film has been exceptionally well shot by Ellen Kuras), summons a powerful sense of Birmingham's past and a galvanizing sense of how this bombing would change its future. The full monstrousness of racist history is encapsulated in scenes of former Gov. George C. Wallace. Mr. Wallace is seen sitting at his desk and slurring his words so badly he needs subtitles as he describes a black aide, Eddie Holcey, as his best friend. ''Couldn't live without him,'' Mr. Wallace says of Mr. Holcey, who looks helplessly mortified when the ex-Governor showily clasps his hand.

Sanctuary of the 16th Street Baptist Church

Among others interviewed in this strong and haunting film are Bill Cosby, who imagines what the girls' future might have been. and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who describes the larger role of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in making Birmingham so central to their struggle. Howell Raines, whose 1983 article on the Chambliss trial in the The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Lee says, inspired him to make the film, affords Mr. Chambliss the considerable distinction of calling him ''the most pathological racist I've ever encountered.'' Verbal accounts here of the Chambliss trial have more power than many a fictionalized courtroom drama.

Parents of Denise McNair

''Four Little Girls'' is most remarkable, though, in making the girls unforgettable and eliciting the long-buried emotions of those who loved them. Addie Mae Collins's soft-spoken sister tells of panic attacks she experienced after the bombing, shaken by the profound fear that not even church was safe anymore. The McNairs summon their hopes for a sunny future from the days before Denise was even born. And Carole Robertson's mother tells Mr. Lee that she thinks she has finally put her anger behind her. Off-camera, he questions this a bit, saying ''I'm not trying to be Mike Wallace, now.''

''Or Ed Bradley,'' Mrs. Robertson gently corrects him. Small points in ''Four Little Girls'' have a way of illuminating the larger history Mr. Lee explores here.


Directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sam Pollard; music by Terence Blanchard; produced by Mr. Lee and Mr. Pollard; released by HBO and 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 102 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Chris McNair, Maxine McNair, Bill Baxley, Alpha Robertson, Wamo Reed Robertson, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Shirley Wesley King, Wyatt Tee Walker, George Wallace, Arthur Hanes Jr., Bill Cosby and Howell Raines. (source: New York Times)

There are many remarkable things about the documentary 4 Little Girls. Spike Lee's striking, beautifully realized film is a cinematic lesson of what kind of material is better suited to the documentary format. In his first documentary, Lee shares an attribute of Ken Burns: the major event in his documentary is not seen on camera. Except for four quick glimpses of black-and-white autopsy photos, the picture stays clear from the bombing. Lee remains with the faces, the girls' friends, families, and the historic figures of the era.


  1. This authentically narrated account of the families brings first hand voice to one of the most inhuman acts against another human in American history. We must continue to tell this and related stories because young people borne in the post segregated eras have no idea of the undemocratic actions imposed on African Americans. Freedom is not freedom. It is won daily and we must consciously work to realize its manifestation. We applaud Spike Lee, HBO and the many contributors to this project for a well done collaborative venture. Dr. Shirley Wesley King

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