Great political documentaries (No24) 4 Little Girls

Sometimes you’ve got to wonder about humanity. Over 150 years after Thomas Jefferson first wrote that all men are created equal, a huge chunk of the American population still thought it was acceptable to discriminate against people due to the colour of their skin. The fact that this was still happening in the 1960s is utterly astonishing to modern eyes.

During this period most of the racism was located in the South, in places like Birmingham Alabama. The entire city was still largely segregated and this made it a focal point for the growing civil rights movement. The Birmingham establishment and police responded to peaceful protests with violence, often using attack dogs and fire-hoses. The even more extreme members of the community, namely the lunatics in the Ku Klux Klan,  had been pursuing a bombing campaign against African-American homes since the 40s.

In 1963 members of the Klan set off an explosive device in a local church killing four African-American girls attending Sunday School. This act of barbarity mobilised the national media to pay attention to what was happening in the south, finally forcing the government to take action.

Spike Lee’s documentary, 4 Little Girls, tells the story of the children and their parents, but also gives the wider context of the political struggle, talking to many of the prominent civil rights leaders and campaigners of the time. Lee even manages to speak to George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, and one of the most outspoken proponents of segregation. Clearly when he did the interview he was desperately attempting to re-shape his political legacy, although judging from the results here, not very successfully.

When virtually your entire life has been an exercise in bigotry and intolerance, gesturing for a clearly embarrassed African-American employee to step into camera shot so you can declare him your best friend, isn’t going to help. The fact that Wallace repeats this so many times makes you suspect that he doesn’t even believe it himself. It’s oddly sad and pathetic at the same time.

Meanwhile an Alabama circuit judge defends the heavy-handed police response to civil rights activists on the basis that, “fire-hoses weren’t the worst thing that could have happened”. He also argues that despite what the media might say, Birmingham in the 1950s was a great place to grow up. Spike Lee skilfully undercuts this with archive footage of hundreds of fully robed Klansman marching through the streets, and photos of lynchings.

Personally I would have liked to have seen more towards the end of the documentary on the struggle to bring those responsible for the murders to justice. The incompetence and laziness of the police meant that the chief suspect wasn’t properly prosecuted until 1977.

4 Little Girls is a respectful and informative documentary about a horrific event, however viewers should be warned that some scenes and photos included are extremely upsetting. I had to pause my DVD copy a few times when watching it. Otherwise it should be in everyone’s collection as a record of an extraordinary and tragic moment in American history.

Here is a clip of Spike Lee talking about the documentary:

For a full list of great political documentaries please click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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