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4 Little Girls

Released: 1997

Genre: Documentary

Runtime: 1 hr 42 min

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Maxine McNair, Chris McNair, Helen Pegues, Queen Nunn, Arthur Hanes Jr., Howell Raines, Harold McNair, Wamo Reed Robertson

A documentary of the notorious racial terrorist bombing of an African American church during the Civil Rights Movement.

The film shocks the viewers with their country's own history.

Review by: SteveRhodes

Added: 8 years ago

On the morning of September 15, 1963, as Sunday School was in session at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an explosion rang out. Long time racially-motivated bomber Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss and a band of his followers had planted a bomb in that church with the intent of inflicting maximum damage.

The civil rights marches were in full-swing in the south and so were the counterinsurgents. These mad bombers that day killed Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Cynthia Wesley (14) and Carole Rosamond Robertson (14). While Spike Lee was still in film school, he began to plan a movie about the bombing. Over a decade later, he has finally been able to deliver on his dream with a documentary, which he calls simply 4 LITTLE GIRLS, to tell the tragedy of those children's early death.

Spike Lee's publicist sent me an unsolicited press video with the goal of fostering knowledge of the film and building demand that it be shown more widely than it has been those far. Even though it has gotten rave reviews, it has only played in 9 major markets in the United States, missing the Silicon Valley and many other regions of the country. (All of the revenue earned from the theatrical release of the film is being donated to a memorial fund for the 4 girls.)

From Spike Lee's very first movie, SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, he has demonstrated fresh and interesting approaches to standard material. Although his DO THE RIGHT THING, for which he won an Academy Award for the writing, is arguably his best known film, his picture MALCOLM X, staring Denzel Washington, remains my personal favorite. Spike Lee's first documentary, 4 LITTLE GIRLS, certainly ranks among his best films.

At the time of the bombing Birmingham was a steel town with a long history of labor violence. In one part of the historic film footage in the movie the Rev. Martin Luther King calls Birmingham the most segregated city in America.

Although much of the South by 1963 had begun to remove some of the more blatant examples of racism, Birmingham still had separate white and colored sections for lunch counters, cabs, restrooms, water fountains, movie seats, bus seats, etc., ad nauseam. The "Commissioner of Public Safety," what a misnomer, was the infamous Bull Connor. Bull was fond of using dogs, billy clubs, fire hoses and even a tank to maintain racial order. These white and colored signs were not to be treated lightly.

Describing this era of insanity, the parents of the slain girls tell their stories in retrospective. Denise's father, Christopher McNair, talks about Denise's childhood. His most vivid and moving recollection is a simple story of woe when he had to tell his hungry daughter that he could not buy her a sandwich because the lunch counter at that store was for whites-only, and it did not have one for coloreds.

It was a time when the moderate whites in Birmingham were just beginning to assert themselves. When a picture of white Birmingham hooligans beating a freedom rider made the front pages of newspapers worldwide, local Birmingham businessmen saw it in a newspaper in Tokyo and said that something had to be done. The film does not ascribe any subsequent actions to these good intentions.

"I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!" were the notorious words said by Governor George Wallace in his inauguration address that year. From that scandalous scene, Lee cuts to today where an invalid Wallace points to a black man named Al who he says is his best friend and who travels with him all over the globe. Wallace claims that when he was governor he provided free textbooks for black students. In contemporary interviews with African-Americans they express doubts that Wallace ever believed his racist rhetoric. They said he was the nicest person you'd ever want to meet until the cameras were turned on him, and then his inflammatory rhetoric was an expedient.

Starting small but expanding rapidly, the civil rights protests in Birmingham grew into something that threatened the white power structure. The reaction by Bull and his crew was swift and predictable. The protesters were put in jail with hardened prisoners, and even little kids went to jail.

The big event for the movement was the tragedy of the death of the 4 little girls. Their funeral was packed with mourners and reporters from all over the world, who descended on the town to cover their burial. As Walter Cronkite put it, "This was the awakening [for white America.]"

The movie ends with Chambliss's trial a decade and a half after his sickening deed. Still laughing at the cameras, he is convinced that he will escape punishment. The film would have been better served with more details of the trial, particularly the investigation leading up to it. Also, too much footage is devoted to names like Bill Cosby and Ozzie Davis who show up mainly to add star power to the picture. These, however, are minor quibbles.

Lee's powerful film works best in the stock footage from the past for no words can adequately describe what happened then. From images as simple as two drinking fountains, one labeled white and one labeled colored, to ones as dramatic as a church in rubbles, the film shocks the viewers with their country's own history.

4 LITTLE GIRLS runs 1:42. The film is not rated but would be PG for mature themes. The picture would be fine for any child old enough to be interested in its subject matter.