4 Little Girls

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/21/07 12:09:11

"Spike Lee's documentary deserved the Oscar."
5 stars (Awesome)

Perhaps the strangest thing in Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated documentary '4 Little Girls' is the recent footage of George Wallace, the old segregationist himself, so enfeebled by age and his assassination-related frailty that Lee has to provide subtitles for his slurred speech.

Lee has shown us the famous footage of Wallace blocking the school entrance (it's the same clip that appears in Forrest Gump), and now Lee shows us an old man eager to seem misunderstood. Sitting at a desk with a can of Diet Pepsi prominently displayed (what a product placement!), Wallace keeps repeating that his best friend is black. "Ed," he beckons, "c'mere. Been all over the world with him." Ed the black best friend obediently stands next to Wallace, his expression faintly embarrassed. Spike Lee stays off camera throughout 4 Little Girls (we hear him asking a few questions), but I would pay good money to have seen his face when he was interviewing Wallace.

The Wallace segment is part of Lee's condensed history lesson in the middle of 4 Little Girls, which begins with tragedy and then establishes the historical context for it. As Joan Baez's cover of "Birmingham Sunday" plays on the soundtrack, Lee pans across the graves of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley -- the girls who died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Denise was 11; the others were 14. Four broken columns in a memorial represent four lives cut short.

Aside from some Oliver Stone-ish touches -- abrupt fades to white; jittery zooms into file photos -- Lee's style here is unflashy and uncluttered. He sets a camera in front of his subjects -- survivors, friends and relatives of the girls, activists and journalists -- and lets them talk, intercutting a generous amount of newsreels and pictures. Some may debate Lee's judgment in keeping the camera on a weeping relative for a few beats too long, or slashing us with shock-cut morgue photos of the mutilated girls. But even these moments play less as lapses of taste than as necessary, visceral reminders of the horror of the events of September 15, 1963.

I don't really know why Lee interviewed Bill Cosby (he doesn't say much that any of us couldn't have said), but the rest of his choices (including Wallace) are impeccable. We listen to the deep sadness of Chris McNair (father of Denise) remembering Denise's first encounter with racism, or the resigned grace of Alpha Robertson (mother of Carole) renouncing any hatred of the man who killed her daughter, and we may wonder if we would have the strength to endure what they did. And such activists as Andrew Young and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth are living history texts illuminating the fear and loathing (and hope) of the era.

If there were any justice, Lee would've taken home a statuette on Oscar night. His filmmaking here may be simple, but it has the beauty of simplicity and the shadings of compassion (an aspect that has brightened the often-overlooked recent work of this once-angry director). Aided by rich photography by Ellen Kuras (who shot, beautifully, Tom Kalin's 1992 'Swoon') and a subtly moving score by Terence Blanchard, Lee has crafted a lovely piece of work about one of the ugliest chapters in American history.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.