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The power of Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls” (now streaming on HBO Max) is all in the title. The film recounts the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a pivotal moment of the Civil Rights Movement, but Lee’s mission isn’t to play professor and provide a history lesson. With “4 Little Girls,” Lee does away with relegating the four Black girls who died in the bombing to footnotes in history books. Instead, he amplifies the beauty of their short lives with such piercing intimacy that to watch the documentary is to say their names and never forget them: Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson.
Like all of Lee’s non-fiction features, including his Hurricane Katrina documentaries “When the Levees Broke” (2006) and “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” (2010), “4 Little Girls” redefines a historical event by showcasing the humanity that pulsates at the center of it. The bulk of the film’s interview subjects are not historians or scholars but the friends and family members of Collins, McNair, Wesley, and Roberton. These interviews contain personal anecdotes that, combined with photographs and home movies, paint portraits of the girls as vibrant and curious youngsters long before they became historical figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
It should come as no surprise that Lee has such mastery over the documentary genre as the majority of the director’s fictional films act as historical documents in one way or another. Lee’s 1986 debut “She’s Gotta Have It” is a feisty snapshot of the rising Black youth and arts culture in Fort Greene, Brooklyn circa the late 1980s (the film is credited with revitalizing interest in the neighborhood after its release). “Do The Right Thing” (1989) continues to be a timeless study of racial tension and police brutality. Lee’s most recent efforts, “BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods,” both utilize archival footage — in “BlacKkKlansman,” it’s documentary footage of the 2017 Charlottesville rally, and in “Da 5 Bloods,” recorded speeches by the likes of Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. ensure that Lee’s fictional narrative lives in and breathes within the wider context of American history.
The key difference between Lee’s non-fiction and fiction features is their degree of restraint. Lee can be a showy filmmaker (see his fourth wall breaking, direct-to-camera addresses in various features), and it often works to his advantage when his bold cinematic flourishes work to rattle the viewer with political calls to action. As a documentarian, however, Lee is careful not to let his style overshadow the subject at hand. “4 Little Girls” is more or less a straightforward talking head documentary in its execution, but that doesn’t mean Lee’s personal touches are nonexistent. He opens the film with footage of the Civil Rights Movements set to Joan Baez’s cover of “Birmingham Sunday,” as the lyrics recount the day of the bombing. As Baez’s angelic voice says the names of each girl, Lee shows footage of their graves and superimposes photos of their faces next to them. It’s a soul-rattling sequence that feels like a resurrection of the girls’ spirits taking place in front of you.
The most striking choice Lee makes in “4 Little Girls” is to film all his interviews in medium or extreme close-ups. Working with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Lee fills the entire frame with his subjects’ faces so that the viewer is directly confronted with their emotions. It’s impossible not to feel the joy as Wesley’s friend, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, remembers his laugh. When McNair’s father, Chris, tells a story about taking his daughter shopping, you can see the sorrow and rage behind his eyes as he remembers having to tell his daughter she can’t order a sandwich from the white deli counter. The four girls may no longer be alive, but their spirits live on in the emotions of the people who loved them best. Filming in close-ups gets viewers as close to these emotions as possible. It’s a 3D window into the soul.
Lee also makes the bold choice to show morgue photographs of the young girls after the bombing. He doesn’t linger on these photographs, as they flash on screen like haunting fragments of memories gone by. For Lee, it’s not simply enough to talk about their deaths; the images of those deaths coalesce into a powerful statement on how much life was stolen from on the day of the bombing. By contrasting memories of their lives with harrowing glimpses of their deaths, he invites viewers to imagine the endless possibilities of who these girls could have become.The lives of Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson are restored in “4 Little Girls.” No wonder it’s one of the most impactful Spike Lee joints ever made.
“4 Little Girls” is available to stream on HBO Max.