The Director's Chair Interviews

With his new documentary, Four Little Girls, Spike Lee fulfills a long-standing mission to document the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
by Gary Susman

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The famously prickly, combative, provocative, even surly Spike Lee is nowhere in evidence when the filmmaker sits down to talk about the somber subject of Four Little Girls, his first documentary.

 The film recounts the epochal story of the bombing of a black Birmingham, Alabama, church in the midst of the civil-rights protest movement in 1963. The bombing killed four black girls--eleven-year-old Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all fourteen. It was the incident, Walter Cronkite recalls in Lee's film, that awakened liberal America to the true depth of the hatred and resistance to integration. Still, more than a decade passed before a notorious white supremacist, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was convicted of the crime. His alleged co-conspirators were never charged.
Lee has been interested in filming this story since 1983, when, as a film student at New York University, he read a New York Times Magazine article about the bombing. He was so moved that he wrote to Chris McNair, Denise McNair's father, asking permission to tell the girls' story on film, but McNair politely turned him down. After all, Lee had not yet made a film, and it would be three years before his career took off with She's Gotta Have It. Ten feature films later, Lee had accumulated enough clout as a well-known, socially conscious, African-American filmmaker to win McNair over. He shot the film last summer on a $1 million budget from HBO's documentary division.

Lee's usual firebrand rhetoric is scarcely apparent in Four Little Girls. He tells the girls' story without voice-over narration, opting instead for the words of their families and the civil-rights activists in Birmingham at the time. The film was strong enough, he felt, to merit theatrical release (and qualify for Academy Award consideration) before the movie's Black History Month run on HBO in February of 1998. It is now playing exclusively in New York before moving on to other major cities and film festivals over the next few weeks.

The forty-year-old Lee is taking no breather after completing Four Little Girls. He's just formed his own ad agency, Spike/DDB; he's published Best Seat in the House, an autobiography of the director as a Knicks fan with courtside seats; and he's about to start shooting He Got Game, a drama about a high school basketball star (played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks) that will reunite Lee with his Malcolm X lead, Denzel Washington. And if the consistently good reviews for Four Little Girls are any indication, Lee will probably be busy come Oscar night next year, too.

When did you decide you wanted to make a documentary feature?

I've always been interested in all forms of cinema. I've done ten feature films, numerous music videos, commercials. I've done mini-documentaries for HBO on sports figures like Mike Tyson, John Thompson, Albert Belle, and Curt Flood. So this was an opportunity to extend that to feature length. But I never saw any barrier. To me, cinema is about telling a story. That's not foreign to me.

Did you think you could reach an audience with a documentary that you couldn't with a docudrama movie?

No, you could reach a larger audience having made a movie of it, but I don't think that was necessarily the best way to tell the story.

Why this particular event?

It's something that's dear to my heart, something I felt passionate about.

Why did you decide to interview Bill Cosby for this?

Well, Bill Cosby, in my estimation, has always been a conscious African-American entertainer. He walked, he was down there in the marches, stuff like that. So I don't think he's out of place at all being in a film like this.

You've said your initial interest in this story was piqued by Howell Raines's New York Times Magazine article in the early eighties. What obstacles kept you from making the film until now?

The obstacle was that I was not a filmmaker when I read that story. I wrote Chris McNair a letter asking permission to do this. I was entering my first semester at N.Y.U. So my skills as a filmmaker were nonexistent, and at that time, Chris McNair was still hesitant to talk about it. I believe timing is everything. So it took ten years of Chris thinking about this and ten years of myself making movies for this to come together.

What were the potential pitfalls of getting this project made, and what steps did you take to avoid them?

We were very fortunate that HBO came in and footed the bill. They paid for everything. Sheila Nevins [HBO's senior vice president for documentaries] was a great champion of the project. Anytime we needed more money, they just wrote a check. Other than that, all we had to do was just tell the truth, and we felt the story was powerful enough that as long as we could tell the truth and not get in the way, make everything plain and simple, we should have no problems.

Do you feel this is going to hurt or help the racial climate here in the United States?

How could it hurt it?

In terms of causing the younger generation who didn't go through this, watching it, feeling powerful emotions, more hatred, or just anger.

I don't think that young people watching this film are going to hate anybody. They might become angry. I just think it's an important piece of history that they need to know about, that they might not have been told about, or something that wasn't taught in schools. But as far as this film having a great effect on the racial climate in this country, not that many people are going to see it.

Could this film play a role in President Clinton's proposed dialogue on race?

I hope he sees the film. That would be good.

Do you think the film runs a risk of making viewers feel complacent that the problems it depicts are all in the past?

Well, you always have that risk, but that's why we included the recent church burnings. In fact, the first cut of the film began with the church burnings. So then we wouldn't have that mistake. It starts today, then there would be a segue back Birmingham, 1963.

Once you got Chris McNair onboard, did the family members of the other girls come right along, or was there still some pain or reluctance on their part?

Well, everybody felt pain. But once we got Chris McNair onboard, he's such a public figure down there [in Alabama] now, being one of the county commissioners of Jefferson County--he's been a legislator for twenty-some years, well-respected--once we got him onboard, everybody just knew. Chris gave the stamp of approval, and everyone just fell in.

How did you come to put most of the emphasis in the film on the personal, rather than the political? Or do you think that there's a difference?

No, I think this is a very political film. But to me, the most important story to tell was the story of these four little girls and let that be the focus. But the politics is there. It's not exempt.

How involved were the girls' families offscreen? Did they give you similar advice or warnings?

No. All they did was--the McNairs opened up their home. We used their home as a headquarters, as a base for the crew while we were shooting in Birmingham. We were part of the family. They were great, and they turned us on to other people who might be helpful. As far as the filmmaking, they still haven't seen the film. Tomorrow night [June 25, at the New York premiere] will be the first time they'll see it.

Was this film as painful to make as it sometimes is to watch?

Yes. You know, it's not easy seeing people break down and cry in front of you while you're asking a question.

Did you consciously avoid making your own presence apparent on-screen?

Yes. I didn't need to be in the film. I tend to like documentaries where you don't have a narrator, a voiceover. Just let the people tell the story.

Has the film changed a lot from its original conception?

The original idea was to do the whole story dramatically.

Did the families change your mind on that, or did you?

I did. That's just thinking about it over the course of ten years, though.

Were there people who wouldn't talk to you?

No. Well, we wanted to get some of Dynamite Bob's [the convicted bomber's] associates [laughs], but for some reason, they didn't want to get in front of the camera.

How easy or difficult was it to get some of the obscure historical footage, like Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor riding his tank down the street?

Bull Connor? That stuff is hard to get. You have to try to find it, and once you find it, you have to find out who owns the rights.

Did anyone give you a hard time?

No. It just costs a lot of money. There's a gold mine of archival footage, so it's not as cheap as it used to be.

Did you know it existed?

Some stuff you've seen before. Other stuff you don't know. Doing a documentary film, you really have to be a detective. A lot of it is just going out and finding stuff, whether it be still photographs or color footage or people. A lot of the people that we ended up interviewing, we had no idea who they were when we started.

Former Governor George Wallace agreed to be a part of this film, yet his is one of the most bizarrely embarrassing scenes in the movie.

Well, I guess he wanted us to know he had a black person working for him. That's the funniest scene in the film. Real hilarious.

Is he senile?

He's on morphine 24-7. I'm not really a doctor, so I can't comment on his mental condition. I knew that was a funny scene, though.

Did the families have any role in the decision-making process?

They haven't seen the film. They all trust me. They did the interview, and they'll see it tomorrow night.

Off the subject, could you comment on the recent passing of Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz?

I came to know Betty before, during, and after the making of Malcolm X. She was a very strong person. I was scared of her. She sat me down and told me what she would and would not tolerate with this film, and that was all right by me because she just wanted the truth.

Did she get to see Four Little Girls?

No.

What's your next big project?

I'm finally going to do a basketball movie, my first sports film [called He Got Game], starring Denzel Washington. It'll be the third time Denzel and I have worked together, the first time since Malcolm X [1992], so it's been a long time. So we're very happy about working together again. We have a good rapport.

He's not going to be a power forward.

No. Denzel will be the father of a kid named Jesus who is the top high school player in the nation, and Jesus is going to be played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks.

What about projects addressing race relations?

I've waited ten years to do a sports film, so that's all I'm concentrating on, right now. But race will be explored somewhat in this film, through the sports world, recruiting and all the other stuff.

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