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'4 Little Girls:' a harrowing look at homespun tragedy

Scenes from '4 Little Girls' July 15, 1997
Web posted at: 10:49 p.m. EDT (0249 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I'm sure I won't win a lot of new friends by saying this, but I've always felt that Spike Lee is a vastly overrated filmmaker. I appreciate his honorable intentions and acknowledge that he has a readily identifiable visual style, but the man evidently seems to believe that he hasn't actually made a point until he's driven it home with a pile driver. Lee's approach to screenwritng, more often than not, consists of having his characters turn and shout angry slogans into a wide-angle lens. As a director of narrative films, he makes a great speechwriter.

That's why I think his new documentary, "4 Little Girls," about the horrific September 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, is the best thing he's ever done. Lee wisely keeps himself out of the picture, allowing instead to let the families of the "four little girls" who were killed by the blast speak from their bereaved hearts. There are also interviews with many of the top civil rights leaders of the period, including Andrew Young and (briefly) Jesse Jackson, as well as one particularly infuriating sit-down with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

The first portion of the film serves as an elegy of sorts for the four victims, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. I think this is the most touching portion of a highly moving film. I know this isn't a scoop, but there are still people who are blind to the pull that racism has over the so-called "moral compass" of this country. A great many Americans don't want to think about messy issues, but Lee (as Steven Spielberg did with "Schindler's List") humanizes the story for people who have never bothered considering that these were not Symbols Of The Oppressed who died that Sunday morning, but four innocent children.

The victims' now-grown friends, parents, and siblings all talk of four good-hearted, intelligent girls who had already been hurt by the racial turmoil in Birmingham, but somehow still managed to focus on the simple joys of childhood. Photographs and gentle remembrances of them point out that participating in the Girl Scouts and making new clothes for their dolls was what these soon-to-be martyrs were mostly concerned with.

There is a great deal of power in stressing this. When Denise McNair's father, Chris, recounts the day he had to explain to his little girl that she was not able to get a sandwich at a local lunch counter due to the color her skin, the story cuts deep. Lee makes it clear this tragedy took place in our own backyards.

Partial trailer from '4 Little Girls'
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Full trailer from '4 Little Girls'
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Much of the film deals with the political situation leading up to the bombing, and the effect that Dr. Martin Luther King's early marches had on the hearts and minds of the people who participated. Birmingham at that time was the focal point of the Civil Rights movement, and for good reason. The city's so-called Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, was a man seething with racial hatred. One interview subject refers to him as "the walking id, the dark spirit of Birmingham."

Connor's tactics during some of the movement's early gatherings were shameful, truly despicable. This was a man who, under the guise of maintaining order, sprayed high-pressure fire hoses on unarmed protesters and cleared them from the streets with teams of attack dogs. He even drove his own personal tank (painted white, of course) through the crowded streets. These are not unfamiliar images (or, at least, they shouldn't be), but Lee again amplifies the message by forcing us into the shoes of the people who were on the receiving end of these de-humanizing tactics.

Or the shoes of those who participated in the de-humanizing. At one point, newsreel footage shows Gov. George Wallace taking his infamous 1963 stand at the front steps of the University of Alabama, when he flatly refused to admit black students. Then Lee cuts to his current-day interview with the now age-wasted Wallace, who tries to display his new enlightenment by calling over his "best friend," a clearly embarrassed black man who evidently is one of his traveling secretaries. Wallace seemingly displays the man as a cure-all, an eraser that will supposedly wipe clean a slate full of vile actions. Wallace seems pathetic at best, a lump of a man whose outdated political theatrics can no longer veil his true spirit.

Lee doesn't flinch when relaying the graphic details of the bombing. Morgue photos of the four girls are flashed at one point, a harrowing moment that rubs our noses in the sheer brutality of these events. That Bob Chambliss, one of the men responsible for the deaths, is eventually tried and convicted 14 years after the fact is little consolation for what happened. The theory is posited that the awakening of this country to what was really going on racially in Birmingham (and elsewhere) in 1963 can be traced directly to this bombing. Or, as, Jesse Jackson says at one point, the event "transformed a crucifixion into a resurrection." "4 Little Girls" reminds us that that resurrection is nowhere near complete.

"4 Little Girls" is heartfelt and harrowing. There are graphic displays of racial violence (including lynchings), as well as briefly shown but extremely gruesome photos of the results of the bombing. Children of age 10 or 11 would be well-served to watch it, and then sit down to discuss it with their parents. 105 minutes.


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