M any filmgoers know the controversial feature films of director Spike Lee, like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, while ignoring or being unaware of his equally fine documentary films. His HBO documentary When the Levees Broke or 4 Little Girls are incredible political statements about social injustice and pleas for fair and equal treatment for all people of color. In honor of African American History Month I want to draw attention to Lee’s 1997 documentary hidden gem 4 Little Girls, a film that deals with the horrendous church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in September 1963, where four little African American girls: Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carol Robertson were killed in an act of racial terrorism.
Lee begins his film with haunting images of the past and a vocal accompaniment of Joan Baez’s melancholy song “Birmingham Sunday”. Throughout the film he proceeds by interviewing, some 33 years later, many of the four girls relatives and local religious leaders about the events leading up to the Sunday bombing and the enduring pain of those who lost their loved ones on that mid-September day. Civil Rights leaders Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, television newsman Walter Cronkite, actors Ozzie Davis, Bill Cosby, then Governor George Wallace, and others tell their personal perspectives of the horrible times in the south, when lives were threatened by people of hate.
Lee mocks the words of several city officials who called the industrialized city of Birmingham “a great place to raise a family” by showing the Klan rallies of the early 1960s. Another official referred to a predominately African American section of the city that was dubbed ‘dynamite hill”, where racist Southerners frequently tossed bombs. Birmingham was a town where 1/3 of the police force were either Klansmen or Klan affiliated. Former police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner was called the “dark spirit of Birmingham” because of his deep racist hatred and treatment of African Americans in the early 1960s that allowed this terrorist behavior to continue without protecting the rights of innocent people of color. Lee shows file footage of newly elected Alabama Governor Wallace’s famous inauguration speech where he proclaims “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”.
All this sets the tone and atmosphere for how on September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed during Sunday school. Lee interviews various religious leaders who said this sad event was a motivator for change. Dr. King followed up his funeral services for the girls with social action. One minister notes how these events lead to the famous Selma Right to Vote Movement. And while it took nearly 14 years before the FBI and local officials charged, tried, and convicted Robert Chambliss for planting the bomb which killed the four young girls, former CBS news anchor called this tragedy “an awakening” that American now understood the horrible injustice that occurred.
Lee ends his film by warning that 22 churches in the South have been burned or bombed since 1994. In the film’s final heart wrenching interview Lee asks Alpha Robertson, mother of Carol, how she has dealt with the anger. Robertson reveals “the anger still comes out”, but, “I work hard not to feel anger and hatred”. This outstanding film received an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature film in 1997.