Contrary to common assumption, theres 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 Lees 4 Little Girls
and Danielle Gardners 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 Yorks best street
basketball teams through a hot Brooklyn summer, and 4 Little Girls,
Lees 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 isnt 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. Lees 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 childrens
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 Lees film. Walter Cronkite opines that white America
didnt really understand the depth of racial hatred until that
Sunday, and Jesse Jackson speaks of turning a crucifixion into
The most affecting element of 4 Little Girls is the revelation
of the black-and-white post-mortem photos of the girls. Lees
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,
4 Little Girls is not quite what youd expect. Its 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 Egoyans recent
The Sweet Hereafter. And as history, it isnt merely a backward
gaze. Instead, Lees film is a memorial service in a time of historical
amnesia. Lee sees the movement as a living thing (even if its
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
Kennys Kings through Brooklyns 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.
Its not as well-directed (who can forget the heartbreaking moment
in Hoop Dreams during Authur Agees mothers 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.
Kennys Kings are younger than most of the teams on the summer
playground circuit theyre all teenagers but more talented:
All but one of Kennys Kings went on to play Division 1 college
basketball. The exception is Ed Booger Smith, the point guard
who is the teams best player and who becomes the films focus.
Its a testament to Smiths 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. Hes 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 (Im
a very respected young man in this community. Im 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, hed
be sold out), but his time is fleeting and he doesnt realize
it. Early in the film he looks into the camera and says matter-of-factly,
If I dont make it to the NBA, Ill be a drug dealer. Somehow
Im 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