Sunday, July 31, 2005

#15: On Spike Lee’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS 9/23/04 In this post-9/11 election year, Spike Lee’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS usefully corrects the notion that terrorist attacks on American soil are something either new or rare. When the 16th St. Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, just as a month of youth-centered services was commencing, there was an affluent Birmingham neighborhood nicknamed Dynamite Hill because of the frequency of bombing newly completed Black homes there. As FOUR LITTLE GIRLS premiered in 1997, national news media reported the resurgence over the previous several years of dozens of Black churches burned throughout the South. FOUR LITTLE GIRLS provides footage of the dogs & fire-hoses turned loose on marchers - largely young people - in Birmingham streets, & the white tank that police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor raced around in. Yes, quite a lot happened here between Pearl Harbor & 9/11. FOUR LITTLE GIRLS reminds us to fill in the rest of the story, & it’s a movie that simmered a long time. In 1963 writer-director Spike Lee was five years old - he doesn’t remember the 16th St. church bombing that killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all 14, & 11-year-old Denise McNair. Spike Lee wasn’t yet 20 when Robert Chambliss was finally charged with the bombing in 1977 - by the way, the anniversary of his arrest is tomorrow. Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Chambliss as Alabama’s Attorney General, says he listened to Joan Baez’s song, “Birmingham Sunday,” every morning for years. A wide shot of the cemetery on a sunny fall morning opens this film, bird calls mingling with the song’s refrain: “And the choir was singing of freedom.” In 1983, Spike Lee was a graduate film student at NYU, so moved by Howell Raines’ New York Times essay on the bombing that he wrote to Denise McNair’s father, asking to make a movie. McNair declined, but finally agreed in the mid-90’s. He knew Spike Lee’s father & aunts, for one thing - this film is about family on many levels. And by then an elected official himself for 20-odd years - a Jefferson County Commissioner - the respected McNair’s approval provided access to the vast array of relatives & friends who appear on-screen, & personages like Howell Raines himself, Reverends Wyatt Walker, James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth & others, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, historian Taylor Branch, Coretta Scott King. The week FOUR LITTLE GIRLS premiered in New York City, the Justice Dept. also announced the case re-opened, leading to the arrest of the three other long-identified suspects. As filmmaking goes, the Oscar-nominated FOUR LITTLE GIRLS is a better documentary than Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11. You have the feeling the delay in getting it made was a blessing in disguise. First off, Spike Lee specifically decided against dramatizing events & characters. He’s done this & done it well - Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, or the complex portrait of social tensions swirling around serial killer David Berkowitz in SUMMER OF SAM. Instead, here he allowed people living with these deaths for three & a half decades to have their own say. This is rich indeed, both in remembered detail & in the stretch to recall memories inevitably faded. “We’ve tried to put this behind us,” says one surviving sister. “We may not remember every detail, but we remember what we felt.” Co-producer Sam Pollard, whose other projects include EYES ON THE PRIZE, edited this film. Pollard & Lee have made a narrative that some have compared to a quilt, with snippets of interviews placed side by side so that the story slowly accumulates, as in a conversation. These personal accounts are filmed with camera work so close that faces fill the screen - several people break down & you hold your breath. Chris McNair somehow manages not to & you hold your breath again. These accounts alternate with news footage & still photos that render Birmingham intelligible & explain why it was the city where Civil Rights leaders least wanted to go. Finally there are several longer segments, archetypal moments in this community’s life on both the public & personal levels. There’s the Chambliss trial - his niece told on him, putting him in prison - a decrepit George Wallace who drags his Black nurse Ed on-screen. Spike Lee doesn’t like voice-over narrative & wisely stays out of the way, with a few exceptions, such as discussed with the McNairs telling 6-year-old Denise why she can’t have a sandwich at a certain lunch counter. Or his exchange with Alpha Robertson (Carole’s mother) about rooting hatred out of her heart. Less than a year after the bombing, Congress finally passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t know any single other documentary that reincarnates this era so strongly as history. Yet what raises it beyond history are the people, not sanitized heroic figures but whole human beings, members of families. Told she was too little to march, Denise McNair told her mother, “You’re not too little,” & her mother shares on-screen not only hearing it but trying to get out of it. If we wonder how these four little girls might have turned out, the years it took to make this film suggest something like an answer. They would be like these friends & neighbors & sisters & cousins & their own parents, who still mourn them from the midst of graceful, well-lived lives. Above all FOUR LITTLE GIRLS is about parenting - what we want for our kids, what is bitter & what lifts you up, parenting in this city where the strategy of the children leading first salvaged a badly faltering movement. And it’s about the other parents who did not keep faith, who have denied their own. It steals over you slowly, watching the hues & shades of color in these close-up faces - intimate terrorism. You can buy FOUR LITTLE GIRLS on-line & now you rent it at Emerald City Video on Bridge Street. (987)