Four Little Girls

Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

REVIEWED: 10-19-98

Contrary to common assumption, there’s an entire world of cinema that rarely finds its way into local theatres – foreign films not safe enough for Oscar consideration, true American independents, documentaries of all stripes, most revivals and restorations. To make matters worse, few of these films end up in area video stores, and when they do it usually takes considerable effort (and luck) to track them down. Two happy recent exceptions to this last bit of cultural lack are Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls and Danielle Gardner’s Soul in the Hole, a pair of documentaries that never found their way onto the big screen here but are now widely available on video.

Soul in the Hole, which follows one of New York’s best street basketball teams through a hot Brooklyn summer, and 4 Little Girls, Lee’s eulogy to the adolescent victims of a racially motivated church bombing in civil-rights-era Birmingham, each saw extremely limited theatrical runs last year before heading to the small screen, and now to video, and both are eminently worth your time.

With 4 Little Girls, Lee, whose reputation for self-promotion is warranted if a bit overstated, has delivered a film of startling humility. The director who began Malcolm X with footage of the Rodney King beating and an American flag burning to an X (an audacious moment for a studio-financed film, but not exactly subtle), eschews both hype and a sense of righteous indignation that would be more than justified given the material. Which is not to say that 4 Little Girls isn’t polemical – Lee has points to make that a more “objective” documentarian might shy away from – but that Lee chooses to let the horror emerge unforced from the material, and concentrates, first and foremost, on the personal loss that racial hatred wrought.

Lee makes his strategy apparent from the beginning, when new footage of the girls’ graves is intertwined with archival footage that establishes the climate of segregation and government-sanctioned violence that made the act of terrorism possible. Lee’s aim is to show the social climate of the times, and its consequences. Thus Lee alternates interviews with the family and friends of the four little girls (Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14) and photos and artifacts from their childhood with archival footage and interviews that show what was happening in Birmingham and the broader movement leading up to the church bombing.

The movement in Birmingham had become something of a children’s crusade, with kids leaving school to march, and subsequently being attacked with hoses and dogs by the local police and hauled off to jail in bunches. Though terrible, it seems fitting then that the martyrs in Birmingham should be children as well. Like the murder of 14 year-old Emmitt Till eight years before, the Birmingham bombing was a galvanizing moment for the movement. That an event so devastating could, in turn, be so radicalizing is not an irony unnoticed by Lee’s film. Walter Cronkite opines that white America didn’t really understand the depth of racial hatred until that Sunday, and Jesse Jackson speaks of turning a crucifixion into a resurrection.

The most affecting element of 4 Little Girls is the revelation of the black-and-white post-mortem photos of the girls. Lee’s strategy here is as deliberate as elsewhere. He waits until more than midway through to show the photos, and by this time the careful accumulation of happy, normal childhood photos of each of the girls has made the juxtapostion of images of them battered, bloodied, and dead almost unbearably painful. But even then, Lee eases into this terrible display: the photos are show quickly at first, in brief, almost subliminal flashes, before settling into a long, hard stare.

4 Little Girls is not quite what you’d expect. It’s not a typical historical documentary, not like an episode of Eyes on the Prize (not to denigrate that great film) focused on a specific event. With its meditative quality and focus on parental and community loss, it could serve as a companion piece to Atom Egoyan’s recent The Sweet Hereafter. And as history, it isn’t merely a backward gaze. Instead, Lee’s film is a memorial service in a time of historical amnesia. Lee sees the movement as a living thing (even if it’s on life support), and makes this clear by including 1994 footage of black church burnings in the South.

If 4 Little Girls is, in part, a testament to the strength of the communities that engaged in the civil-rights struggle, then Soul in the Hole gives an indication of the violence inflicted on that sense of community in the post-civil-rights era. In following Kenny’s Kings through Brooklyn’s Soul in the Hole summer league, the film documents a culture where each game is in danger of erupting into violence, where school (not to mention the future) is often an afterthought, and where family connections are in dissarray.

Soul in the Hole has suffered from comparisons to Hoop Dreams. It’s not as well-directed (who can forget the heartbreaking moment in Hoop Dreams during Authur Agee’s mother’s nursing-school graduation when the camera pulls back to reveal an empty auditorium?) or as ambitious in scope, but it also centers on a different milieu – street ball instead of high-school competition – and has a better appreciation for the joys and rhythms of the game and its culture.

Kenny’s Kings are younger than most of the teams on the summer playground circuit – they’re all teenagers – but more talented: All but one of Kenny’s Kings went on to play Division 1 college basketball. The exception is Ed “Booger” Smith, the point guard who is the team’s best player and who becomes the film’s focus. It’s a testament to Smith’s hoops acumen that he overshadows teammate Charles Jones, who went on to lead the nation in scoring at Division 1 Long Island University and is sure to be in some NBA camp this fall (if the lockout ever ends). Every time the film focuses on a game, it finds Jones giving some hapless defender a facial (basketball parlance for getting dunked on in a particularly humiliating fashion). But Booger, the dice-playing, shoplifting, drug-dealing basketball prodigy, is The Man. He’s got the hops and handle of a pro, and the proverbial eyes in the back of his head.

“Kenny” is Kenny Jones, a likeable, thirtyish self-promoter (“I’m a very respected young man in this community. I’m a Bed-Stuy celebrity,” he boasts) who bounces from job to job (liquor-store cashier, morgue attendent, bank security guard), and spends all his money and time on his team. He acts as guardian to Booger, who, after a fight with his mother, came over to spend a night that lasted three years. Booger is a local celebrity too (one neighborhood hoops scholar says that if you could put Booger in a can, he’d be sold out), but his time is fleeting and he doesn’t realize it. Early in the film he looks into the camera and says matter-of-factly, “If I don’t make it to the NBA, I’ll be a drug dealer. Somehow I’m gonna get me a Lexus.”

Soul in the Hole ends on a note of loss not all that far removed from 4 Little Girls. Both films are, in many ways, about the violence our culture inflicts upon African-American youth, and if the journey from 4 Little Girls to Soul in the Hole charts a change in how that violence manifests itself, it reaches an outcome no less despairing.

--Chris Herrington

Full Length Reviews
Four Little Girls

Capsule Reviews
Four Little Girls

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Get On the Bus
Girl 6
He Got Game
Summer of Sam

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