As the Birmingham Bombings Turn 50, Spike Lee Reflects on the Dark Road to '4 Little Girls' (Q&A)

Spike Lee BLUE Scholarship - H 2011
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Spike Lee BLUE Scholarship - H 2011

The director recalls the soul-searching that led to his decision to include graphic images of the young victims' bodies -- and calls out John Boehner's "crocodile tears" at a recent D.C. event commemorating the tragedy.

On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed by members of the Klu Klux Klan. The incident rippled across America and focused every eye on the Civil Rights movement. The attention came at the cost of four young lives: Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley.

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After reading the a 1983 New York Times Magazine cover story on the bombing, Spike Lee, still a student at NYU, knew he had to tell the story on film. It took him until 1997 to research, shoot, and edit his documentary 4 Little Girls, a project immersed him in the lives of every person touched by the tragic act of violence. On Tuesday, Lee attended a ceremony in Washington D.C. awarding the four girls with the Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest civilian honor.

Lee calls 4 Little Girls, produced through HBO Documentary, “one of the best I've ever done.” Here, Lee recounts for The Hollywood Reporter his experience making the film and why there's still room for the country to acknowledge the young lives lost 50 years ago.

The Hollywood Reporter: After you read the Times' account of the bombing, what steps did you take to make the film?

Lee: I found out Mr. McNair's address and wrote him a letter saying, "I would like to do a feature film." Not a documentary, but a feature film about his daughter and the bombing. Well, of course, he didn't have to respond because, number one, he's not going talk with me about that, just the bombing, and number two he didn't know who the hell Spike Lee was.

Many years later after I established myself as a filmmaker, I was receiving an award in Birmingham, Ala. So I said, "Let me take a chance and see maybe I can maybe revive this idea, as a documentary." So I called up Mr. McNair, read him the letter he said, 'Oh!' Then he [asked] if I was coming down. I told him I was coming down. He asked me where I was staying. I told him a hotel. He said, "No, you're not staying in a hotel, you're staying in our house. I want you to meet my daughters and my wife Maxine." So I spent the night over at their house and they showed me all the stuff they had. And I said to the McNairs, "I really want to do a documentary, but I want it about everybody," and they said they would call the people who are still around and tell them they'd be a part of it and encourage them to be a part of it, too. So the McNairs were a passageway that [helped me get] in touch with everybody else.

THR: How did you come to decide it should be a documentary over a narrative film? Why did you make that change?

Lee: Because it was a dumb idea when I wrote that letter to do it as a fictional account. It had to be a documentary. I didn't want actors recreating the stuff. I wanted the parents, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers. I wanted documents of them. I did not want this to be actors doing this. I wanted this to be a documentary.

THR: 4 Little Girls was your first documentary. It must have felt like a huge undertaking.

Lee: Documentary is storytelling. So I don't really, to be honest, have a different mindset between my narrative and my documentary filmmaking. It's about storytelling.

THR: Even with all your knowledge of the incident, what were the revelations you discovered when you went to Birmingham and began interviewing people?

Lee: I mean, there's a lot of stuff. One of the highlights though was this surreal interview with George Wallace.

THR: It's a particularly chilling interview -- the way it's intercut with his African-American colleagues.

Lee: Here's a revelation: One of the pivotal moments of the documentary is a George Wallace interview, which we cut with his infamous “stand in the doorway” at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa. So here's how life works: Growing up in New York, I had four heroes: Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Will Clyde Frazier and Joe Willie Namath. Joe is my guy and eventually I got to meet him, you know, we're kind of friendly. Keep that thought.

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Two years ago I get a call, the phone rings, I said, "Hello, who's this?" "We have a call for you -- it's the attorney general on the line." I said, "Ohhhh s**t." I'm trying to think what did I do. [laughs] He said, "Hello, Spike." I say, "Hello, Mr. Holder." He said, "No, no -- call me Eric." He said, "I want you to speak to my wife." So she says, "Hello, Spike. My name is Sharon Malone ... Spike, guess what?" I said, "What?" "We're related." So she tells this story that we're related. Now hold that thought.

Guess who was standing in the door that George Wallace was trying to block? Sharon's sister, Vivian Malone, who was in the documentary. There were two guys, one was an African-American male, but Vivian got all the press. Sharon Malone, my cousin, who's married to attorney general Eric Holder is the younger sister of Vivian Malone. So I'm interviewing George Wallace not knowing that that's my cousin, second cousin, he's blocking at the University of Alabama. It turns out that Joe Namath was there that day because he was the [football team's] quarterback under [coach] Bear Bryant. Then it turns out that Vivian Malone courted Joe Namath while he was at Alabama. Isn't that crazy?

THR: So this is all fate. You're six degrees from George Wallace's most notorious act.

Lee: I grew up worshipping Joe Willie and then I find out Vivian Malone is my second cousin she courted Joe Namath in Alabama where Bear Bryant reused to play until his last years because of they wouldn't play black ball players. I interviewed George Wallace for the documentary not knowing he was blocking my second cousin at the door.

THR: What does your editor, Sam Pollard, who you worked with on this film, bring to the table for you?

Lee: Sam Pollard is one of the great documentary filmmakers today and editors. A lot of the skills I learned as a documentary filmmaker have come from my man Samuel Pollard, Sam Pollard and I would like to say we are both on the faculty at the great New York University of Film School. Sam has cut a lot of my narrative films, too.

THR: What was your most difficult moment in making this movie?

Lee: The most trying moment I had was in post-production, when our great archivist Judy Aley had found post-mortem photographs of four girls, which were gruesome. And many nights, I prayed at night. It was a conflict. Should I include these shots or not? And finally, the Spirit told me to include it. I knew they were gruesome, but I still felt that we need to see the evil, the hatred, we need to see what those many sticks of dynamite did to the bodies of those four little girls. That's why i included it. That's one of the hardest editor decisions. It has to be the hardest editor decision I ever have to make.

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THR: You attended the ceremony granting the four girls Congressional Medals of Honor. What was that experience like?

Lee: I really want to say, I'm not trying to be mean-spirited or raining on someone's parade, but I just felt, I can't understand why these families was not given their own individual gold medal for one of their daughters that was killed. If you just, if you heard speeches, by Steven Backus, majority leader Eric Cantor, Richard Shelby, the wonderful Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Diane Spakes, Harry Reid, John Boehner. Speaker Boehner was crying the whole time, he was crying crocodile tears.

A lot of them were so eloquent about the sacrifice those four girls made how they boomed a miracle forward. The parents made such a sacrifice, let's not do it half-way. Let's give each one of them a Gold Medal. The McNairs are the only parents alive. I understand the medals are not going to bring the daughters back, but if we want it to be it symbolic, everyone should have gotten the medal. Each one of those families should have received a gold medal yesterday. Instead of one for all four families that they will put them in the museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.