• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:October 2, 2021

4 Little Girls: The Blast That Changed History


4littlegirlsWhen Condoleezza Rice was eight years old, on a September Sunday in 1963, she felt an explosion a few blocks away from her father’s church. The African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had just been bombed by white supremacists and the lives of four little girls were extinguished. Decades later, Rice would talk about how she never forgot that moment and that it robbed her of a childhood friend, Denise McNair. Rice grew up to become the U.S. Secretary of State. But four little girls never had a chance to make something out of their lives.

Shocking an entire nation
The film introduces us to the atmosphere in Birmingham at the time, explaining what it was like for a Black person to grow up in the segregated South. Preventing Blacks from voting was particularly important to the white men who ruled Alabama, because if Blacks were allowed to vote freely things would change. And that was a threat to racists like Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, and Governor George Wallace who once proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”.

Ironically, as several people in the film point out, the good that came out of the bombing was that it shocked the entire nation and no one could ignore the problem anymore. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law.

Passionate about civil rights
I’m writing this review a few days after director Spike Lee received an honorary Oscar and gave a speech that blasted Hollywood for being far too white at a time when audiences are becoming increasingly diverse. He’s passionate about civil rights and this documentary is one of his finest films. He considered making it already back in 1983 when he contacted Chris McNair, Denise’s father, but he wasn’t ready to talk about the murder of his daughter. Which is a good thing, because I guess McNair needed another decade and perhaps Lee needed to get some filmmaking experience.

Hitting the right tone throughout this vivid documentary, Lee paints a moving portrait of the victims with the help of their families who offer heartbreaking testimony, especially about what happened on that September Sunday. Lee doesn’t really spare us details, even going so far as to show us photos of the girls from the morgue, and letting us know that a piece of mortar had pierced one of the girls’ head. The purpose is not to sensationalize, but to make audiences realize the full impact of the evil that those men did that day. He also makes us understand why it mattered so much politically, even interviewing Wallace himself in the film, who comes across as a pathetic figure who insists that he’s not a racist, forcing some poor Black guy who’s working for him to pose as his “best friend”.

Various prominent figures add cultural and historical context, including Walter Cronkite, Ossie Davis, Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson. There’s even Bill Cosby in one scene, almost a startling distraction now, considering what we’ve learned about his past… One of the non-celebrities interviewed, Bill Baxley, who prosecuted the man who was eventually convicted of murder in this case, takes us through the trial in a riveting way.

This week, TIME Magazine published a lengthy, compelling article on what happened after the murder of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston earlier this year. 50 years have passed since the bombing in Birmingham, but white supremacists are still active. The burning of several churches in Birmingham in the 1990s is also included in the movie, as Lee highlights that timeless aspect. Progress runs slow.

4 Little Girls 1997-U.S. 102 min. Color. Produced by Spike Lee, Sam Pollard. Directed by Spike Lee. Editing: Sam Pollard. Music: Terence Blanchard.

Last word: “We were in this public library in Alabama, and we asked to see the morgue photos, not knowing that they had them. When the clerk called the photos out, we were startled and taken aback. You can imagine what 20 sticks of dynamite can do. But when you see the results, it literally brings tears to your eyes. I have to be honest with you, I was not 100% sure whether I should include those shots. The postmortem photographs. But I decided if we didn’t linger on them, it would be tasteful. They reinforce the horror and the crime that was committed when those sticks of dynamite went off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed the four little girls.” (Lee, Indiewire)



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