True To Life: The Documentaries of Spike Lee

How 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke examine culture from its vernacular center

April 29, 2016

The qualities that make Spike Lee unique among post-’70s American filmmakers are his singular cinematic voice – hip, puckish, street-forward – and his loud, proud, tribalist love for Black people as human subjects, aesthetic source material and radical actors on the American race-obsessed political scene.

Like anyone who’s had a three-decade career of nonstop productivity (24 feature projects between 1983’s Joe’s Bed Stuy Barbershop and 2015’s Chi-Raq with all but two of them released in theaters), Spike has had hits, near-misses and a few flops. The prolific volume of that work is unmatched by any of his generational peers in the same period, quantified by what's become a diversified practice that includes a bevy of television commercials, music videos and documentaries of various lengths.

Since 1997, he has completed 23 nonfiction projects that show his commitment to covering the culture from its vernacular center: the live comedy film The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), the avant-garde outlier turf of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) and Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Broadway hit rock-opera Passing Strange (2009). But it’s his documentaries, two in particular, that will surely be discussed by future film historians as incontestable additions to his definitive canon: 1997's 4 Little Girls and 2006's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts.

The first remarkable thing about 4 Little Girls is Lee’s self-effacing and cool-headed approach to the material. Five decades later, the 1963 bombing at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Street, which killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, remains a flayed and raw nerve in the Black American community. Like most Civil Rights Movement stories, it is many genres of stories combined: a war story, a crime procedural story, a racially charged political story, a story about American news media and its coverage of racially charged political events in the 1960s.

When the Levees Broke remains one of the most detailed accusations of the indifference, tone-deaf detachment and utter shredding of the American social contract by the U.S. government during the Bush years.

Most films about the Civil Rights Movement find their focus in the boyhood contest between Movement leadership, local law enforcement, and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Lee covers those bases with fastidious detail, but he also inverts the balance of attention paid to the surviving families of the victims versus Movement bigwigs. For once in these affairs, it’s the people who went on living in Birmingham long after the political circus left town who take center stage. The heart and soul of the film are the testimonies and remembrances of the murdered girls given by their parents, former playmates and adult family friends.

Spike guides us into the interior of a stable community in the south whose central figures are married African-American homeowners. Meaning, 4 Little Girls is also a Southern Black American story, an homage to the domesticity and self-sufficiency of Black Southerners like Spike’s own grandmother – a matriarch to whom he owes his own university attendance and funding for his earliest films. It is quietly revealed that, for a sector of the community, the Movement was not only about integrating the south for shopping, employment and dining purposes, the struggle was a means to expose the daily terrorism and dehumanizing micro-aggressions that characterized Being While Black in the ’60s south.

For Birmingham’s leading activist of the period, the iconic and beyond courageous Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the fight against the affronts of Southern social space outweighed combating acts of terror aimed at his own home. Spike also focuses on what became known as "The Children’s Crusade,” when grade schoolers begin breaking out of class to join the protest rallies and go to jail for days without contact with their parents.

4 Little Girls is one of the few films that treat Martin Luther King and his disciples as background players. Even when the film takes up the 30-years-late case brought against one of the bombers, it’s told through the local prosecutor’s perspective. We get humanizing details about the prosecutor’s love for the Joan Baez song about the four which plays as foreshadowing at the beginning of the picture. We also, almost in a throwaway bit, learn that the FBI had known for decades who the bombers were because of undercover informants in the KKK. You could follow that lead to a searing mid-story indictment of the collusion between J. Edgar Hoover and the KKK, but Spike, showing noteworthy restraint, leaves that work to another engaged cineaste and another day.

At a running time of under four hours, When the Levees Broke is a more sprawling slow burn, seething with rage, factoids and pain. Its length suggests aspirations to Shoah’s gravitas, and its procedural doggedness is not necessarily a one-sitting affair. A decade later, it remains one of the most detailed accusations of the indifference, tone-deaf detachment and utter shredding of the American social contract by the U.S. government during the Bush years. It delivers a witness-bearing service to those future writers on that wretched history – one which spreads the blame and the deflection of blame – among all authority figures.

Like Spike’s best features, When the Levees Broke bridges the gulf between narratives of macro-political machinations and human-scale storytelling. Along with 4 Little Girls, the two films represent the career highwater marks of Spike’s interventionist directorial role playing as a radical citizen reporter. Through Spike’s lens, they affirm the everyday heroism and humanity of folk in the middle and bottom rungs of the nation's class ladder and race divides.

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