4 Little GirlsReviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 10/07/05 16:27:09
(Worth A Look)
During his interview for Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls,” former Gov. George Wallace tries to defend his old attitude towards blacks by pulling his “best friend” into the shot with him. His best friend is a noticeably uncomfortable black man named Eddie Holcey, Wallace’s aide since the governor was shot in 1972. The scene is complete ridiculous and completely out of step with the rest of the film, but that little bit of film is just too good to cut out. The rest of the film is much more somber, much more serious and absolutely incredible.In the Spike Lee documentary “4 Little Girls,” Rev. Jesse Jackson makes a brief appearance to discuss the greater social impact of the murders of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Westley and Addie May Collins, four Birmingham, Al. pre-teens. Generally credited for jump-starting the push for equal voting rights (as well as another push for general equal civil rights), Jackson says the social impact turned “a crucifixion into a resurrection.”
Nothing against Jackson — he’s become an amusing pop culture caricature — but he’s completely out of place in Lee’s film. “4 Little Girls” is not really a film about the greater good; it’s the personal story of the death of four innocent girls when their Baptist church was bombed in 1963. If Lee had remembered that fact, he might have made a perfect movie. There’s a chunk in the middle of the film when it switches tone from the girls to a general discussion of the civil rights moment in Birmingham. Honestly, it’s an interesting chunk — an interview with former Gov. George Wallace is surreal and showing police commissioner “Bull” Connor’s white tank as it drove through otherwise peaceful marches is ridiculous — but it suggests Lee couldn’t decide what type of movie he wanted to make. It’s like he began making a movie about civil rights, realized he was taking on more than he could handle and overcompensated by focusing on the story of the bombing.
If Lee doubted the strength of the four girls’ story, he got incredibly lucky with a compelling true story. Wanting to turn the story into a documentary since the ’80s, I have reason to suspect the ill-suited segment is something of an oversight. When it comes to the girls, Lee knows exactly what he’s doing. Shot mostly in close-ups of fractured faces, the film deals more with emotion than facts. This isn’t the story of a bombing, or the story of a Klansman criminal. It’s not about autopsy reports and court transcripts. It’s just about the lives of four girls told through the mothers and fathers, sisters and neighbors, friends and pastors. There’s a nice mixture of old photographs and home movie footage of the girls, which blends nicely with the detailed portraits of the girls offered by those that knew them. For the majority of the movie, these girls are not played as one-dimensional martyrs for a greater cause; they were real people trying to live and play in a city and country that didn’t want to see them.
I hate to keep bringing up the faults in an otherwise amazing movie, but like the earlier segment, Lee loses steam as he nears the end of his story. He gathers a collection of high-profile figures to discuss the greater impact of the hideous crime. Do we really need Bill Cosby and Reggie White to tell us the civil rights movement was a good thing, or Walter Cronkite to mention that much of white America refused to stand for the murder of four 11- and 14-year-old girls? Does Lee really need to try and link that crime to a bunch of Southern black church fires in the mid-’90s? He wisely downplays the trial of Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the man ultimately convicted of the bombing, because the film isn’t really about the man responsible. It’s an emotional rebirth of the victims, four girls that were unfairly taken before their time.Lee’s documentary begins with the entirety of Joan Baez’s rendition of “Birmingham Sunday” over faded snapshots of the four girls, as well as footage of their gravestones. In certain circumstances, the premise could be considered extremely emotionally manipulative. Lee manages to pull it off, though, and it’s a beautiful opening to an amazing film.
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