Spike Lee: 4 Little Girls (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: 4 Little Girls (1997)

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On September 15, 1963, violent white members of the Birmingham, Alabama community conspired to and detonated a bomb to destroy the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, were killed in the resulting blast.  Spike Lee's first feature-documentary, 4 Little Girls, is about the events leading up to the bombing, the investigation afterward, and the hope and grief of those still alive.

Silhouettes in passingKyle Commentary Banner4 Little Girls marks a point in Spike Lee's career I've had a growing interest in throughout this project—his shift into documentary film-making. Spike is a director that maintains such a distinct stylistic control over his films that taking away the ability to block a scene, set lighting and color choices, and shoot and reshoot it in any way he wants presents what could be an interesting restriction. With 4 Little Girls Spike's presence is clear in everything from the careful structuring and interlacing of the numerous interviews and images to the desire to explore on a personal, individual level the effects of the kind of racial hatred that characterized Birmingham (and much of the rest of America) during the Civil Rights movement.

There are a few sequences in particular I want to talk about that stand out to me as firmly within Spike's style—and some interesting ways his typical use of photo montages at the start of his films comes to serve a different and deeper purpose here—but having just finished it you've got a little bit fresher of an emotional perspective than me here, so what's your initial reaction?‏Blow this and I'll come runnin'AndrewCommentaryBannerSpike's fiction films rely on a sense of emotional context and gradual world-building to establish a moral center before directing it to real-world issues.  While his style has always been confrontational and to the point he is careful to avoid deliberate accusations until he builds a strong case.  His documentary work showcases a side of Spike that we've seen in passing with fiction but never so prominent - his collaborative strength.

This isn't to say that Spike should not earn every bit of auteur credit that I can muster, but I don't want to overlook his ability to get people to tell stories in their own way.  We discussed this a bit with Jungle Fever and how the best scene of the film, the lengthy conversation between women about their desires and the way society places certain pressures on them, was the result of allowing the participants to guide the dialogue and Spike only offering suggestions on the direction.  Even when it's off the mark, like in Girl 6, Spike clearly wants to avoid misrepresenting people in a way that he feels the media has misrepresented the black experience in America.

4 Little Girls is the first heart-shattering documentary Spike made and is so good that I almost wish Spike abandoned fiction altogether.  What impressed me most about 4 Little Girls, and we'll be talking about this a lot more when we get to When the Levees Broke, is Spike's rigorous structure.  He tells the story in emotional beats but adds in crucial bits of information when necessary to provide the real-world historical context for everyone's determination and misery.  4 Little Girls starts as intimate as it can be by focusing on the girls themselves, then grows to the community, the city, the state, the country, and then the world before finally zooming back down to the bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham.  Spike obtains such a clear picture of each of these factors because of his close collaboration with the interviewees and laying an impressive amount of groundwork in a relatively short span of time.  Before even going into how I feel about the people in 4 Little Girls there's so much information present that we can get an idea of what is going on at the corner store, or how people in Japan are reacting to it.  From a pure informative perspective, 4 Little Girls is very dense.‏Reflected memoriesTiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the things you mentioned—Spike's concern with experience vs. media representations of experience—is the target of my favorite sequence in the film (from a formal perspective—there are others that hit more impressive, sometimes scorching emotional notes). His typical use of photo montages to set up the themes and history/historical settings being drawn on functions on a deeper level here because the historical images are utilized to tell the visual part of each interviewee's story. That these images often exist independently of each speaker allows Spike to compare and contrast their words and thoughts with the historical reality embedded in the visuals.

Look at the scene introducing us to Arthur Hanes Jr.—the defense attorney for Bob Chambliss, now a Circuit Judge at the time of filming—who waxes on about how Birmingham was a “wonderful place to live and raise a family,” his dialogue playing over film and photos of Klan marches and lynchings. While this technique is a pretty standard, if effective way to criticize Hanes' remarks, the sequence that follows works especially well because Spike starts playing with multiple voices cut into a single seamless stream.

It starts with Hanes talking about how “Birmingham was a steel town” built on labor and industry—the perfect confluence of Americana and capitalism (his admiration when he refers to the “barons” that built the town is almost palpable). Then it jumps to another man—while showing images of the town, making it difficult to know if we've changed speakers—who emphasizes that while Birmingham in the 50s was a hard-working, blue-collar town, it was also “a violent town.” It jumps quickly to a third man discussing the racial hatred and violence and the abuse of the working class (at the hands of industry “barons” and corrupt authorities) that characterized Birmingham at the time.

Finally, Spike cuts back to the initial footage of Hanes as he says, “with that background, the 50s were a time of quiet here. A wonderful place to live and raise a family.” It's a brilliant segment for how quickly and effortlessly Spike qualifies and contextualizes the shallow nostalgia Hanes is pumping out to cover up an ugly, violent history. Layering his words about Birmingham being “a wonderful place to raise a family” over violent and hateful images is a clever way to underline Hanes' hypocrisy in the first place—but by virtue of cutting the three separate speakers' thoughts together into one coherent “monologue” the way he does, Spike implicates Hanes not in racist ignorance, but in active, intentional whitewashing of history in favor of “the 50s was a time of...” nostalgia.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI misheard Hanes' words the first time I watched that sequence.  What I heard Hanes say was, "...with that background, the '50s were a time of white here"  I didn't trust my ears here because I didn't think he would be so overt with his racism but after rewinding and finding that he said "...quiet here" instead it made more sense.  Spike's montage technique here is so effective I was hearing what Hanes was saying even though he wasn't using those exact words to say it.  Yes, white and quiet are phonetically similar, but Spike interlocking those images which highlight what Hanes is really saying pushed Hanes' reality into my mind.

There's another prominent and awkward example of how the authorities took care to present themselves in front of the camera, but while we're talking about Spike's technique with the interlocking images showing what the participants are saying by not saying I have to speak about the families way of dealing with the bombing.  While cutting between the family members who lost a daughter, granddaughter, or niece that day Spike cuts to images of the girls postmortem on autopsy slabs.  None of the family members talk about holding the girls, and rarely deal with their grief in explicit terms, but talk about the tactile sensations - running out into the grass, the sight of the police waiting outside, or the weight of the bricks that propelled and killed the girls.

Two things are not being discussed openly but being talked about through what the families are not saying. The first is the horror that their community, despite all its evil acts, would allow this monstrous and unthinkable event to mutilate and kill their children.  That's why the discussion of the police waiting hit me so hard, they were assembled to keep the peace by corralling the victims and not letting them mourn their dead.  The second goes back to Spike's careful sense of scale, because after looking at the conflict in successive steps up to the global scale he started cycling back and right before the scene with the families describing the bombing we have a few moments where different people give their thoughts on the involvement of teenagers in the fight for Civil Rights.  No one says it outright, but the bombing that killed the little girls was the next step from involving teenagers, it was just a step no one except the most vile racists chose.‏Fading from viewTiny Kyle CommentaryThat was an interesting way of challenging some of the more common perceptions of the Civil Rights movement as well—I think it’s around there when one of the men Spike’s interviewing clarifies that not as many people were active in protests in Birmingham at the time as is often thought, and instead it was a smaller, more consistently devoted group, which lead to the need to involve young people in the movement.

Spike doesn’t stop to make a big point of it, but it’s a moment that works to push away the typical and now mythicized notions of the era—rather than the usual larger-than-life figures and huge cinematic shows of resistance, we're presented with the personal reality of those who participated. The emphasis in that moment is on the toll incurred by being repeatedly beaten and arrested demonstration after demonstration, and consequently on the devotion and strength required to keep fighting. It resists the urge to translate these personal elements of struggle into a broad transcendent message about the era—the types of narratives we see all the time that while often well-intentioned can end up providing an easy way for the audience to feel good about the progress made by the movement at the expense of ignoring the real human costs.

There's another moment that stuck with me stronger than anything else once the movie was over, also working to contextualize the dehumanizing effects of racism on a distinctly personal level: one of the girls' fathers tells a story about when they were out in downtown one day and as they passed the food counter at a store there were onions frying. His daughter was hungry and wanted a sandwich, and he points to this specific moment as when he realized he had to explain to her that they couldn't eat there because they were black. Another person, a sister of one of the girls killed, tells about how their mother used to let one of them get a drink from the “whites only” water fountain whenever they were out shopping so she wouldn't have to explain to them why one had to wait for the other, only using the fountain set apart for blacks.

These moments illustrate not only the pain the parents felt and feel at having to deliver such a blow to their children's innocence—and they're not just forced to be the messengers of such a terrible truth, they're also rendered powerless as parents by it—but also serve to underline the dehumanizing effects of such racism. That this is a formative “talk” the parents must have with their children, and that there is a distinct moment where their innocent view of the world—one which naturally doesn't include a place for racism and segregation—must be broken just so they can continue to function within it is horrifying. There's nothing “new” being said about the effects of a racist society here, but the implications on a personal level are being illustrated in a surprisingly potent way.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryKing's inclusion in the documentary, as well as the interviews with Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, also did a great job at showing how specific media is cherry-picked by specific parties to build a case that race just isn't a problem anymore.  I would just as soon no one ever quote King's "I Have A Dream" speech again considering how many people use the "Color of content, not skin" part to criticize people who dare talk about race at all.  King, Davis, and Cosby show disgust, rage, and remorse at the events and project a different image than the constant strength and nobility that's associated with leaders within the movement.  It does more to show that this was more of a war than anything else, and that the fighters chose to be in that position while casualties like the four little girls took a heavier toll on them than any beating or fire hose could manage.

Their inclusion also showed how little power they wielded, and the gradual transition from the societal battle to the legal struggles comes with it an interviewee shift as well.  What struck me during discussion of the case was how there were no black voices present in the initial charge, prosecution, and acquittal of Chambliss and his accomplices.  At this point we've spent 70 minutes or so with a variety of people, but almost all the black community members and leaders involved in the struggles, and despite all their sacrifices and pain they were denied proper representation in the case that killed four of their own.

This complete blindness to representation in power comes to a head in a scene that is simultaneously hilarious, pathetic, disgusting, and blindly evil.  George Wallace is a man who earns no pity from me, and his rebirth as a "born-again Christian" rings hollow when he gives the definitive example of "I'm not racist, I have a black friend" when he asks how can he be racist when the man he travels around the globe with is black.  So Wallace brings this "best friend" onscreen, and we see that Wallace's friend is really a nursing aide, extremely uncomfortable, and wanting desperately to get off-camera.  Spike makes a powerful point about how he wants black voices to speak for themselves here, as "not racist" translates to a different kind of subservient relationship between white masters and their black subordinates.  Meet the new power structure, same as the old power structure.

You made a comment I have to poke at considering our previous conversations.  At the tail end of your last thoughts you wrote that there's nothing "new" being said in moments of 4 Little Girls, but that the personal revelations are potent because of their presentation.  I've made this exact argument in favor of Jungle Fever and Get on the Bus and, considering the then-contemporary films they were playing against and the national dialogue, I felt as though their presentation was still fresh and important.  This is definitely the case with 4 Little Girls as well with the images of armored vehicles throughout Birmingham echoing the same totalitarian brutality we saw in Ferguson earlier this year.  How would your experience with 4 Little Girls change your perception on Spike's earlier efforts, if at all, in light of your thoughts here?‏My best friendTiny Kyle CommentaryThe moments and scenes I'm talking about above work without a contemporary referent I think—though there are plenty of those, as with the armored vehicle you mention—which may be the key difference for me when comparing them to some of the other movies we've looked at. Obviously the technique we're both pointing to isn't always going to be effective or ineffective just in itself, because the specific ways in which points are rooted in the characters and presented is so important—in this case I thought those scenes worked because they illustrated a universal truth about the effects of racism in a specific horrible but necessary developmental moment

So where I've found Spike's efforts to root larger problems or ideas in individual characters clunky or obvious in the past, the attention each parent pays to this particular moment in their child's life wasn't something I'd seen articulated and laid bare like that before. I think without getting into specific examples from the earlier movies, that's why it generally worked better and made a stronger impression than some of the moments in previous films.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryThat'll likely be a discussion for the next podcast then as we'll have a few more documentaries and fiction films to draw on.  If nothing else I'm glad that this seems to have finally hit a sweet spot for you in the way that Spike's previous films have not.  My experience has been that his documentaries only get better from here, and this is one hell of a note to start from.‏

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