A Church Filled with Blood

4 Little Girls

Some events have an aura of unease, the feeling that something terrible was meant to happen, but few movies based on real life are able to re-create that atmosphere. Oliver Stone’s JFK stands as one of the most successful attempts.

Two months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, four African-American girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls elevates the tragedy to Act of God status. A woman begged her kids not to go to church that day, having dreamt of the building filled with blood. A mother tells her daughter to make sure she looks nice going to church, because you never know whether you’re going to come back. That little girl didn’t.

The bombing was hardly the first in Birmingham, a stronghold of the Klan, a town overseen by the racist police commissioner Bull Connor (who travels around in what’s basically a tank) in a state run by George Wallace. But the attack on September 15, 1963, was too horrible to ignore.

As tragic as the bombing was, its positive repercussions don’t escape Lee. It shook up a largely apathetic nation and reinvigorated the effort to give equal rights to African Americans.

The film starts with recollections of the family members of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. McNair was 11 when she died; the other three were 14. Family members and friends tell domestic stories. Denise McNair’s father explains the pain of having to tell his daughter that she couldn’t buy a sandwich at the whites-only lunch counter.

Lee then expands his inquiry, presenting the bombing in the context of city, state, national, and race politics. This gives the film a rich collection of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Blame, probably rightly, is heaped on nearly everyone: bigoted government officials, black parents who were afraid to get involved in the Civil Rights movement, leaders who sucked children into the struggle, and on and on. Oddly enough, the actual bombers get off the easiest.

In terms of its material, 4 Little Girls is a perfect match for Lee, who seems to understand race relations better than any other filmmaker today. Stylistically, though, the director works too hard. The intimacy the movie has with family members is strong, but Lee intrudes at odd moments with his off-camera voice and cinematic flourishes. Really, do we need fast zooms and sound effects to make George Wallace a bad guy? His pathetic insistence that his best friend is a black man is damning enough.

And while all the background is interesting, Lee doesn’t know quite when to stop. With four dozen people interviewed in the film, 4 Little Girls makes it difficult to follow exactly who’s who. Lee simply casts too wide a net, and would have been wise to follow the camera’s lead, trained more closely on the faces of the victims’ families.

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