Spike Lee’s first documentary, 4 Little Girls, tells the tragic and highly personal story of the April 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that stole the lives of four African American children. Told through the eyes of the parents, siblings and friends of the victims, 4 Little Girls delves into the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement and its implications for the daily lives of African Americans living under the oppression of structural racism.
This movie will cut straight to your heart, and you will cry. Through the memories of friends and families, each of the four girls who passed away in the bombing comes back to life as bright, vibrant young women with vast amounts of potential for brilliant lives. Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), Addie Mae Collins (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) each had distinct voices and characters, but all four of them were robbed of the chance to develop them further. Denise, in particular, is the most developed of the four girls as a character in the film, due to Christopher McNair’s extensive involvement in production.
Spike Lee and his team spend a majority of the film exploring the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates had a particularly difficult time convincing the Birmingham adult African American population that they needed to take a public stance against oppression, so the movement quickly became youth-led. First, college students became involved, then the high schoolers, then the middle schoolers, until elementary school children were marching against racism. And getting arrested, too. A classmate of Denise who participated in the documentary recounted spending the day in jail when he was eleven years old. Throughout 1962 and 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had become the Civil Rights Movement headquarters.
Within this framework of timid adults and bold children, the documentary begins to prepare for the day of the bombing. Addie Mae’s sister describes the morning of the bombing as she and her sister headed to church and played catch, messing up their hair and dresses. Other family scenes — getting to church late, mothers scolding daughters for unkempt hair, parting ways for Sunday school — permeated all four of the girls’ mornings. The bomb went off in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where all four were late coming out of Sunday school before the regular service. The documentary includes photos from the church as well as photos of the girls in the morgue. One of the girls (I’m pretty sure it was Denise, but don’t hold me to that) had a piece of stone from the building lodged in her skull. The photographs are pretty intense, and squeamish viewers might want to look away from the screen when they come up.
These four deaths became the catalyst that moved the entire nation toward supporting the Civil Rights Movement. Institutional racism and the harm that it caused to adults could be rationalized or moralized out of importance, but the nation collectively balked at the unashamed murder of innocent children.
Despite the collective horror of the nation, the Ku Klux Clan members who planted the bomb went untried for decades. The first culprit to be tried, Robert Chambliss, was arrested, tried and convicted for the 1963 crime in 1977. Three other men were also responsible, but by the time 4 Little Girls was released in 1997, no further arrests had been made. Shortly after the release of this documentary, the FBI revealed its ongoing investigation into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. They pinned guilt on Chambliss and three others, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry. In 2000, Blanton and Cherry were both convicted; Cash had already died.
One of the most impressive things about this documentary was its inclusion of an interview with George Wallace, then governor of Alabama. Wallace, who had during his career as governor barred students from integrating public schools and universities, was determined to convince his audience that he was not racist. Indeed, Wallace’s interview seemed more like a deathbed confession of sins and struggles to do right by the citizens of Alabama, and in the special features of the DVD, you can watch his entire interview.
I’m going to close this out by saying that 4 Little Girls is the most powerful documentary that I have watched. I would highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, but be forewarned: you will cry during this movie, and if you don’t, I’m not sure that you are really human (Update: I accept the humanity of those with reluctant tear ducts).
Here’s a video clip of Spike Lee and Christopher McNair talking about 4 Little Girls before it opened in theaters in 1997: