(The Root) — The first clue that 4 Little Girls isn't going to be your typical Spike Lee joint comes in the film's opening minutes: Folk singer Joan Baez mournfully sings "Birmingham Sunday," the 1964 song inspired by the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963.
The somber scene-setter comes from a filmmaker who isn't known for being subtle. When the documentary was released in 1997, Lee had set Hollywood ablaze with his incendiary take on race with films such as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. But as memorable as those films are, 4 Little Girls will go down as his most important film simply because it is a humanizing story of four typical American girls who became symbols of the sacrifices endured during the civil rights movement. (Even Eyes on the Prize, PBS's exhaustive 14-part series on the history of the civil rights movement, treats the girls' deaths as a mere footnote in the struggle for equal rights.) The film is the definitive oral history of four children whose images were frozen in time by a horrendous act of hatred and fear.
Lee was inspired to tell the girls' stories after reading a 1983 New York Times magazine article while a film student at New York University. Lee reached out to Chris McNair, Denise's father, about the possibility of doing a movie, but McNair turned down the inexperienced filmmaker. "He knew I wasn't ready," Lee said in a 1997 interview. "And also Chris wasn't ready to talk about the death of his daughter."
After directing 10 films, Lee came calling again. This time McNair agreed. Getting McNair's approval was critical for Lee in order to convince others to share their stories; McNair was a respected member of the community who had become a county commissioner in the years following his daughter's death. "Chris gave the stamp of approval and everyone just fell in," Lee said in an interview.
Lee, now the seasoned filmmaker, let the powerful testimonies of friends and family stand with few embellishments. The compelling interviews capture just how typical the four girls really were: Denise, the youngest at age 11, was a feisty, inquisitive child who loved making dresses for her dolls; Carole, 14, the same age as the other two, was a Girl Scout who was scheduled to play her clarinet with the high school band the Monday following the bombing; Cynthia, who could always make friends laugh, was set to act as an usher for the first time that Sunday; and Addie Mae, the quietest of the four, spent her last moments playfully tossing her sister's purse like a football as they walked to Sunday school that fateful morning.
Lee juxtaposes these happy childhood memories with the story of how Birmingham became the epicenter of the civil rights movement in the early '60s. Iconic figures from the frontlines of the struggle — including Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel and Wyatt Tee Walker — recall a divided city that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., had become "a symbol of hardcore resistance to integration." Long before King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference made its headquarters at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 to help desegregate the city's downtown, blacks lived under the constant threat from white supremacists. One black neighborhood was bombed so often it was dubbed "Dynamite Hill."
The frantic story of the Children's Crusade — demonstrations by Birmingham's youths that erupted into chaos when Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed the dogs and set the fire hoses on the marchers in May 1963 — quickly dovetails into the quiet retelling of the girls' last moments before the blast came.
For white America, the church bombing became the wake-up call. "America understood the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration, particularly in the South, but also throughout America," says newsman Walter Cronkite in the film. "This was the awakening."
For those in the movement, the deaths of the four girls only strengthened their resolve. Rather than seeking retribution — as a few discuss on camera — civil rights organizers turned their focus on getting blacks in the South the right to vote so that parents could protect their children.
By the end of the film, we have a fuller picture of what was lost that September day while civil rights pioneers fought for fair and equal treatment. Comedian Bill Cosby gives a description of what might have been: "Four lovely children today could have been Spelman graduates, Harvard graduates, could have been doing things in their community, could have been wonderful doctors, lawyers or just plain hard-working people, but human beings."
Genetta M. Adams is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.