#435) 4 Little Girls (1997)
Directed by Spike Lee
Class of 2017
The Plot: Spike Lee gives documentary filmmaking a go with “4 Little Girls”. The four in question are Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley; four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th, 1963. Over 30 years later, Spike Lee interviews their family and friends to learn about the four, as well as the racial tension of Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. “4 Little Girls” cites the bombing as the turning point for White America to take a more active stance in supporting Civil Rights, leading to, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a]n important documentary” and praises Lee’s melding of his fiction filmmaking skills to the documentary format, as well as his “sensitively rendered interviews”.
But Does It Really?: There are plenty of documentaries on this list about the Civil Rights era, but “4 Little Girls” ties them all together. Spike Lee manages to take this American tragedy and simultaneously make it a personal story about the four girls and their families, as well as a broader story about a turning point in our country’s history. The film is a tribute without becoming saccharine, with commentary from a wide array of subjects that allows for multiple perspectives. “4 Little Girls” makes the list for the events it chronicles, but in the hands of Spike Lee is also a compelling film on its own.
Title Track: I’m always surprised when a documentary has a title song, but it’s apparently more common than I thought. Played over the end credits, the song “4 Little Girls” is performed by Brooklyn artist Pantera Saint-Montaigne.
Seriously, Oscars/Emmys?: Originally produced for HBO, “4 Little Girls” impressed the network so much they gave it a theatrical run prior to its broadcast. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but lost to the Mark Jonathan Harris film “The Long Way Home”. The following summer, “4 Little Girls” received five Emmy nominations, losing Non-Fiction Special to “Vietnam POWs: Stories of Survival”.
- “4 Little Girls” was Spike Lee’s first documentary. Lee had originally planned a narrative feature based on the events, but after conducting years of research decided that a documentary would be a more appropriate approach. The documentary format also helped assure the families of the victims that the story would be presented as accurately as possible.
- Spike Lee manages to interview a wide swath of those affected by the bombings. Family members, friends, classmates, neighbors; you really get the sense of an entire community permanently scarred by these events.
- The film opens with “Birmingham Sunday”, a protest song about the bombing performed by…Joan Baez! Geez, she has more credits on the NFR than John Ford.
- The opening scenes are very much a Spike Lee Joint. A discussion about Birmingham’s violent history leads to several (white) interviewees talking about how it was more peaceful town by the early ‘50s. These interviews are juxtaposed with archival footage of the Ku Klux Klan marching through town. No one gets off easy when Spike Lee’s around.
- I appreciate the film’s efforts to show us what the girls were actually like, but even one of the interviewees admits that it’s hard to remember them 35 years later without rose-colored glasses. “We put so much of this behind us, and we don’t remember.”
- Perhaps the film’s biggest “get”: an interview with Governor George Wallace! Wallace was filmed towards the end of his life, and walks back his “segregation now” viewpoints of the ‘60s with two standbys: “I did it because that’s how things were” and “my best friend is black”. Wallace’s inclusion is a surprising and saddening sight.
- Also interviewed is former US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, whose quick thinking during the University of Alabama desegregation of 1963 is highlighted in NFR documentary “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment”.
- You can’t talk about Birmingham during the Civil Rights era without showing footage of the local police hosing down the student protesters. This footage also appears in “King: A Filmed Record”, but watching it now from the students’ perspective makes for a more nuanced watch.
- The center of the movie is a detailed account from interviewees of where they were during the bombing. Lee allows the subjects to tell their own story, but does add photos of the four girls’ bodies in the morgue to pack an appropriate emotional punch.
- Spike Lee brings out most of his big name interviewees at the end to show the larger impact this bombing had on America and Civil Rights. Among those appearing: Coretta Scott King (reading her husband’s Christmas letter to the four families), Walter Cronkite, Ossie Davis, Jesse Jackson, and…Bill Cosby. Thankfully, Cosby’s appearance is one brief, hypocritical moment.
- The final part of the film is devoted to the 1977 trial of Bob Chambliss, one of the four Klansmen responsible for the bombing. Denise’s father Chris agreed to take the witness stand, and his testimony is believed to have compelled the jury to a guilty verdict. Even when the narrative switches to a white man, Spike is able to keep our focus on the girls and their families.
- As always, Spike ends his movie with a reminder that while things have changed, there’s still a lot of work left to do. The news footage of a resurge in church burnings in the mid-90s features an early use of the term “racially motivated”, which is a PC way of calling someone racist without actually saying it.
- For those keeping track of the events of 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing occurred a mere 18 days after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
- Spike Lee would team up with HBO for several documentaries, including 2006’s “When the Levees Broke”, his look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
- “4 Little Girls” led to the reopening of several Civil Rights era cold cases, including the conviction of the other surviving men behind the bombing. Both Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Cherry received life sentences in the early 2000s. Cherry died in prison in 2004, while Blanton continues to be denied parole.
- The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing has been referenced throughout popular culture, including a recreation in the 2014 film “Selma”.