Spike Lee's made-for-HBO documentary about the four young girls whose deaths helped galvanize the civil rights movement examines the youngsters behind the martyrs, while presenting a powerful portrait of a city and a country at a pivotal time in history.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in doggedly segregated Birmingham, AL was bombed. Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson -- an 11-year-old and three 14-year-olds -- died in the blast. Lee occasionally stumbles as a documentarian: Equating recent church burnings with the Ku Klux Klan's vicious and virtually unquestioned reign of terror in the '50s and '60s rings terribly false, and the inclusion of specious remarks by actor Bill Cosby (identified only as an "educator") is pure pandering to celebrity worship. But the material is so profoundly moving that it hardly matters. The archival footage alone is painfully eloquent: Klan marches, segregated rest rooms, police violence against peaceful protesters, then-Gov. George Wallace obstructing court-ordered integration of the University of Alabama, Freedom
Riders running afoul of mobs and Dr. Martin Luther King addressing ever-larger crowds. Lee intercuts it with a series of interviews whose subjects include civil rights-era leaders, historians and politicians (including reporter Howell Raines, whose New York Times Magazine article about the bombings inspired Lee); attorneys who participated in the trial of intransigent racist "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss (who was convicted of the bombing); the friends and families of the dead girls; and even the now-feeble Wallace himself, protesting cluelessly that one of his best friends is a black man.
Time and tragedy may have flattened the four girls into remote paragons of youthful virtue, but the viciousness of anti-integrationist rhetoric is palpable and should never be forgotten.
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