I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.
Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.
Spike Lee and the history of Black America
By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.
Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.
As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.
The documentary form
Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.
The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.
American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.
Documentary and representations of social reality
Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:
There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”
For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”
And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.
Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”
It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.
Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98
Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003
Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.