Four Little Girls a Documentary by Spike Lee

Four Little Girls is a 1997 American historical documentary film about the September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. It was directed by Spike Lee and nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Documentary."  Lee evokes feelings of empathy for the people whose lives these girls affect. Lee interviews the people connected to the girls by familial ties, friendships, political, and social. He does it in an environment that stirs up feelings of the civil rights era and the fateful day of the girls’ murder.

In one of the scenes, the parents of one of the girls, Denise, recount to Spike Lee about the day they had to tell their daughter she could not drink from the water fountain or eat at the same lunch counter because only whites could use them. Through this narration, Lee lays the foundation to draw the viewer into the emotional highs and lows of the story. Lee interviews the parents in the house where Denise lived as a child. There are family pictures in the background.  As the parents recount the events leading up to the death of their daughter, you see a whole range of emotions display on their faces. The father goes from speaking in a regular tone to a heartbroken one a he conveys the story. The camera closes in on his face as he says, “that night couldn’t have been any more painful than seeing her laying up there with a rock smashed in her head.” You see these emotions in the sigh he lets out and the helpless grimace in his face.

In the scene where Lee interviews Reverend Shuttlesworth, he stands in front of the church and points out the crack in the corner of the building he is describing. Bethel Baptist Church was the headquarters of the civil rights movement in Alabama. This was the church where his house stood at the time of the explosion. By pointing out the crack, he demonstrates that the event happened because we can see the preservation of the proof, another feature that draws you in emotionally and makes you feel empathy. 

When Lee interviews Gerald Colbert, a childhood neighbor of Cynthia, one of the girls killed, Colbert points out the areas where he and Cynthia played as children. Colbert was fourteen at the time – the same age Cynthia is when she dies. Lee constantly reminds the viewer of how Cynthia’s life is taken in her youth, and while Cynthia died, Colbert yet lives.

Lee interviews Cynthia’s sister, Shirley, who gives a very emotional story about Cynthia. Lee strategically captures her in front of a statue of children in the background. We first see a clear shot of the statue then the camera pans to Shirley’s face as she speaks. As she reads a letter of the last words Cynthia’s mother says to Cynthia, she bursts into tears and we see a shot of her covering her face. The camera keeps rolling as she cries, pulling the viewer into Shirley’s emotions and making us feel her pain.

In the story of Addie, we to meet Addie’s sister, Junie. Her expression clearly demonstrates her distress as she tells her story of how Addie’s death affects her to this day. You can hear the outrage in her voice. We discover that Junie is the one who identified the body. As Lee flashes the images of the body, we understand her outrage and the distressful look on her face.

The parents tell of the day they discover their daughters have died. Lee cuts to still pictures of their bodies post-mortem, depicting the horror. These graphic pictures allow us to see the brutality of their deaths and feel shock and horror.

Coretta Scott King is also one the talking heads Lee uses in his documentary. She is a very recognizable part of the civil rights movement. Mrs. King reads a letter Martin Luther King, Jr. writes to Denise’s parents as images of Coretta’s own children interacting with their father cross the screen. This scene sends the powerful message of loss for the audience to identify with.

In conclusion, Lee interviews people who closely connect with the young girls compelling us to feel the deep pain they undergo. Even as time passes, they cannot erase the vivid memories that continue to linger in their minds of the four young girls. Through this documentary, Lee tries to preserve their memory and gives us a glimpse into their personal lives so that we too can connect and remember them.

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