By Cory Bilicko
Nine years before he gave Katrina victims a platform for expressing their grief and frustration in his HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee made the move from fictional filmmaking to docs with his potent 4 Little Girls.
The film recounts the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama– the racially motivated terrorist attack that was intended as a statement against segregation, but, when the smoke cleared, four young girls were dead in the rubble.
Through interviews with the girls’ surviving family members and friends, we learn that bombings in the black community there at that time had actually been commonplace and that this wrongdoing wasn’t an isolated event. This particular incident helped to finally wake up the nation to the racial violence in the South and it became a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
In 4 Little Girls, Lee lets the stories tell themselves, through a mostly talking-head format, interspersed with photos and footage from the time period.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like the usual quirky, colorful “Spike Lee joint,” and, witnessing the heart-wrenching stories unfold, you forget that he indeed made it.
There’s a requisite integrity and reverence that is perhaps due in part to the fact that this story is one that Lee had wanted to tell cinematically since NYU film school and also that, until he’d proven himself as a seasoned and responsible filmmaker, he couldn’t get all the family members to agree to participate in the documentary.
One interviewee whose participation does come as a bit of a shocker, not to mention a source of cringe inducement, is former Alabama governor George Wallace, notorious for his “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” inaugural speech.
Here he is seen sitting behind a desk, where he continues to beckon his “friend,” a black caretaker, to move closer to him, into the frame, rather than discuss the significant events of the past.
There’s an anticipation that Lee’s voice will soon be heard, questioning the authenticity of the friendship, but, instead, he simply lets Wallace bury himself. It’s a truly awkward moment, but there’s some sort of strange justice that Lee is allowing to happen in the scene.
As a matter of fact, after the release of 4 Little Girls, the scales of justice began to tip more in favor of the victims of the bombing: the FBI reopened the case, Thomas Blanton Jr. was found guilty of first-degree murder four times over for the incident, and Bobby Frank Cherry was sentenced to life in prison.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary but lost to The Long Way Home, which depicts the struggles of post-WWII Jewish refugees. In the DVD extras for 4 Little Girls, Lee attributes the Oscar loss to the fact that his film was up against one about the Holocaust.
But, for its clear storytelling, raw emotion, and sense of judicature for those afflicted by the bombing, 4 Little Girls is certainly no loser.
Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls is available through the Long Beach Public Library system. To have a copy of the DVD sent to the local Dana branch, call (562) 570-1042.
To read more about the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, check out the following titles, also available through the Long Beach Public Library system: Long Time Coming by Petric J. Smith; Parting the Waters– America in the King Years by Taylor Branch; The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis; and, Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslun.