We’ll eventually get around to figuring out what makes Spike Lee tick, sometime after he does, between movies about Big Issues, TV commercials for jet-propelled sneakers, and courtside celebrity tantrums at pro-basketball games. Whatever this tick is, it’s bound to prove more interesting than the clockwork innards of his most obvious analogue, Woody Allen, whom we have already figured out. As much as himself, Lee seems to be therapizing the rest of us. We tick, too, like a color-coded bomb. So as Lee goes deeper into his own subconscious – down past Brooklyn boyhoods, high-school hysterias, interracial love affairs, million-man marches, and Malcolm X – he stirs with a stick the sediment of everything we’d rather not remember. In 4 Little Girls (Monday, February 23; 9 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO), he’s gone all the way back to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. It’s his first full-length documentary, consisting entirely of contemporary interviews and historical footage, of eyewitness testimony and numbstruck media memory.
Which isn’t to say that 4 Little Girls isn’t artful. Only a filmmaker so resourceful, so entirely confident in his practiced craft, could have made such a quilt out of patches of nightmare and nostalgia – of gospels, ghosts, and grief. And only Lee, having earned the trust of these people, could have persuaded them to talk to him (as only Lee could have gotten permission to infiltrate his cameras into Mecca while making Malcolm X). For instance:
J. Christopher McNair, whose 11-year-old daughter, Denise, was one of the four who died in that September Sunday bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. We see Denise in history – of the Jim Crow South and the Ku Klux Klan; of steel mills, box-car factories, and lynchings; of freedom rides, children’s crusades, and Bull Connor in a tank. But we also see her in family photo albums – at play and worship; at home and the morgue. As well as Carole Rosamond Robertson, a girl scout who played the clarinet. And Cynthia Wesley, the adopted daughter of the high-school principal and a member of the church choir. And Addie Mae Collins, whose quietude still haunts her sister.
Of course, we meet such heroes and martyrs of the civil-rights movement as Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr., Diane Nash, and Andrew Young. And such worthies of the Fourth Estate as Howell Raines and Walter Cronkite, feeling rotten on behalf of the New York Times and CBS, respectively.
But it is the vanished children whom the movie celebrates, and the friends obliged to grow up without them, thickening into adult lives around these bright and blotted images – this innocent waste, the raw material of a moral curve that promised once upon a time to be redemptive like a rainbow. And it is the song that Joan Baez wrote about them that we can’t help hearing in our sleep, almost like a prayer. If 4 Little Girls forces us to remember nothing else, it should be that terrorism in this country didn’t start at the World Trade Center or in Oklahoma City. Being bombed is old news for black Americans.