The Common Good
January-February 1998

Staring into Jaws and Jails

by Chris Byrd | January-February 1998

The child martyrs of the civil rights movement.

It is simultaneously 1963 and the present day, and Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, is standing amidst the wreckage of his bombed-out pastorate, Bethel Baptist Church. With astonishing grace and dignity, Shuttlesworth tries to make sense of the devastation—one of the most memorable, absorbing, and poignant moments from Spike Lee’s outstanding new documentary, 4 Little Girls.

Scheduled for a premiere in February on HBO, approximately 10,000 people viewed 4 Little Girls at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in the Birmingham civil rights district during a special two-week engagement in September. The film premiered there the day after the 34th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four little girls of the title—Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Ada Mae Collins—were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen trying to send a message to civil rights activists.

The bombing had the opposite effect. Prior to the bombing, as former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young relates in the film, civil rights leaders in Birmingham struggled to find 50 adults who would go to jail with Martin Luther King Jr. More significantly, as Walter Cronkite indicates, this bombing forced white people across the nation to countenance the intractable and truculent nature of the hatred and segregation in Birmingham. Lee’s insight that the deaths of these girls changed everything for these families and for the movement makes the film work on two levels: as a story of how families overcome horrific and profound loss and as living, oral history.

Overlaying still photographs, archival film footage, and contemporary interviews, nicely enhanced by Terence Blanchard’s wonderful musical score, Lee shapes an old-fashioned story where heroes and villains emerge. If there are any "stars," they are Chris and Maxine McNair, the parents of Denise McNair, and Alpha Robertson, the mother of Carole Robertson. (The Collins and Wesley families curiously don’t receive as much attention, which is one of the film’s shortcomings.) As these family members tell familiar stories of slights endured and injustices suffered, through the specific and personal details remembered, the old truths of their stories become more resonant. For the most part, viewers are absorbed and moved, but Lee occasionally lingers too long on those understandably overwhelmed by emotion.

Still, the focus on the personal gives the viewer room to comprehend more fully the lessons of history that Lee hopes will be taken away. We come to understand how and why Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders such as Rev. T. Wyatt Walker and Rev. James Bevill devised the risky strategy of involving junior high and high school students in civil disobedience. These children do the things that adults couldn’t and, in most cases, wouldn’t do. The remarkable courage of these young people in the face of German shepherds and jails lingers longest with the viewer.

While Lee lifts up these children, he reserves his wrath for the film’s three villains: Robert Chambliss, the one person convicted of the bombing; Bull Conner, the police chief and erstwhile Sunday school teacher who turned the hoses on the children; and the former governor, George Wallace. Wallace appears here as a pathetic buffoon. His speech is nearly unintelligible due to his paralysis, and has to be captioned. A running gag in which Wallace repeatedly insists that his sheepish black chauffeur is his best friend seems a bit mean-spirited and out of character with the rest of the film.

Toward the end of the film, Lee tends to rely too much on the talk of interview subjects, and some—Bill Cosby, Reggie White—seem curious choices, added for their celebrity appeal. However, these are small complaints. These flaws don’t detract from 4 Little Girls’ capacity to engage, absorb, and elevate. It will stay with you well after the screen goes dark.

CHRIS BYRD is a staff person at Magic City Harvest, a food rescue program in Birmingham, Alabama, and a free-lance writer.

4 Little Girls. Produced and directed by Spike Lee. HBO Original Programming, 1998.

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