In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, essayist Susan Sontag wonders if “perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it…or those who could learn from it.” That certainly sounds like the thinking behind Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, a straightforward, instructive, effective, generally accessible, frequently beautiful, and occasionally stomach-turning account of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. In the heat of the Civil Rights struggle, and in the city most noted for its tenacious resistance to racial equality, Robert Chambliss planted between ten and twenty sticks of dynamite in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen. Thirty-four years later, Spike Lee goes back to Birmingham to talk with the parents, friends, and activists who remember the day best.
One of the strengths of Lee’s approach is his use of archival photos and film footage. Images of signs in public places (eg., distinguishing “white” and “colored” water fountains), protests, speeches, and police activities, along with the less politically-charged school photos and home movies, visually re-create a reality that may be especially helpful for later generations. The truth is, while the issues Lee discusses are still important, the actualities of the Civil Rights movement may seem distant to such a young and politically sensitive culture as today’s children. If the question is “Could it really have been that bad?” Lee’s answer is pretty incontestable.
That said, Lee does have a habit of over-the-top-ness that may be slightly
off-putting, mostly notable in his presentation of former governor George Wallace.
Wallace makes an embarrassing enough spectacle of himself in a painful interview
sequence (insisting that his black caretaker is one of his “best friends”),
that the dark, artsy shots of Wallace’s head ringed in foul cigar smoke
seem an unnecessary effect.
Overall 4 Little Girls is quieter and less militant than Lee’s fiction films, focusing on the girls themselves and their individual personalities, rather than their collective, anonymous martyrdom. He introduces each child through family and friends’ recollections and manages to maintain the feeling of a family reunion or neighborhood barbeque, as folks sit around and reminisce familiarly. He also lets the interviews get a little messy, refusing to cut when the speaker needs time to think or to compose herself, and even including his off-camera questions when the interaction is especially touching. But Lee is no sentimentalist: the restraint and emotion are exactly what make the film so politically effective as a call to action. We are entrusted with the image of extreme suffering—parents mourning, siblings remembering, and particularly difficult photos of the dead girls just after the bombing (which images may need to be mediated by careful parents)—only because we are expected to do something with them. The director makes a tacit deal with us, showing us what Sontag says we otherwise don’t have a right to see, and putting on us the responsibility, as empowered insiders, to act.