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4 Little Girls
Spike Lee's documentary on the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four children in September 1963 correctly focuses on the lives and deaths of those children, spending most of its time with the fine, decent people in the girls' surviving families. Lee's humility in the face of tragedy -- his evident desire to do the girls due honor -- serves him well as a filmmaker, as he lucidly sketches the tumultuous civil rights struggles that engulfed Birmingham at the time, shows the shared decisions that led the movement to put children in the front lines of battle, and grants us just enough purchase on the sick psyches of the racists responsible for the girls' deaths to make us understand their motives, without allowing them to take over the picture. Only occasionally is Lee unable to hold his showoff tendencies in check, as for example in his presentation of the cadaverous wreck of George Wallace in a jerky, palsied fashion that demeaningly echoes the former governor's physical decrepitude. Indeed, the lives of the girls are so poignantly conveyed that contemporary politicians filmed talking about how their deaths paved the way for future advances seem otiose. Lee's footage of a more recent wave of church burnings also looks shoehorned in, but these are minor flaws in a fine, church-glass-window tribute to four unwitting martyrs.

-- Gregg Rickman

4 Little Girls is playing at the Opera Plaza.

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