Imagery in this Civil Rights documentary moves its audience to tears

Four Little Girls

16th Street Baptist Church now a symbol of freedom and perseverance was once the location of a racial crime that killed four innocent young girls.

16th Street Baptist Church now a symbol of freedom and perseverance was once the location of a racial crime that killed four innocent young girls.

The documentary 4 Little Girls produced by Spike Lee moved me in a way I have never been moved. I felt hurt, devastated and lost. As the end credits rolled across the screen to the sorrowful tune of “Birmingham Sunday,” I felt heavy. I had sunken into my chair with no desire to move. What is it about this specific film that had paralyzed me?

Every news channel these days is consistently filled with reports of violence and misery. Images and footage shown on television or in print media tend to be graphic and disturbing. Though I thought I was somewhat numbed to this type of media, the documentary shown in class had an effect on me I had not anticipated. Mothers who had lost their children cried. Siblings who survived the tragedy struggled to recall specific details. Friends and family members shared anecdotes that transported the viewer to 1963. For this process, the camera angle was atypical. The faces of survivors filled the screen. Tight zooms clearly captured every subtle smile or inconspicuous furrow of a brow. I was right there. I could feel their ache because I could see it so deeply in their eyes. Every tear affected me. I felt pain as I held back my own tears. Their voices paired with gloomy gospel music moved me and made me interested in every word. Along with the music and the voices were occasional noises from the video footage like the whistles of distant trains, the growls of the police dogs, or the screams of victims. Every part of the experience was captured in sound and resonated quite literally with me.

Sound is only a part of the effect. The visual imagery heightens each narrative. Portraits of the little girls smiling as they hold new toys are juxtaposed with their disturbing autopsy photos. Shots of the tombstones in the cemetery where the four lay repeatedly resurface. Bombings of churches are frequent, and the images of the resulting destruction are shown. The images are stinging. The footage of snarly police dogs jumping at their leash waiting to be released on innocent humans is frightening. I tense up thinking in anticipation as if I am there. The images of men like Eugene “Bull” Connor and other powerful racist men of that time make me squint my eyes and crease my forehead in animosity. I hate them for what they did, and I was not there. I do not know them. I know only of the terrible acts they executed on many innocent lives. I feel the anger that the survivors share.

As Ossie Davis, African-American Broadway actor stated in the film, “Birmingham was the focal point of the struggle.” The story becomes relevant. I live on Arkadelphia, the site of many attacks in the 1960s. I was raised in Anniston, Alabama, the site of the Freedom Rider bus bombing. To imagine such hatred and such violence taking place where I live make the event more real and relatable. I have seen the 16th Street Baptist Church. I can picture where the once lively and beautiful little girls played with a purse, so innocently unaware of their unfortunate fate. I have marched in the footsteps of Marti Turnipseed, a white student who once stood up for the rights of her black peers at Birmingham- Southern College. I’ve listened to Reverend Turnipseed address students of my generation at Kelly Ingram Park, speaking of freedom and rights. I attend school on Arkadelphia Road, where a white student Marti Turnipseed, fought for equal rights in the 1960s and was punished for it. Suddenly the epicenter of the violence is not in Syria or Afghanistan. It is in my home. Everything is more real. I can hear the sounds and smell the smells and truly visualize each scene because I know what that place looks like. I understand what the narrator means when she says, “industrial city.” She means those trains and those beautiful short skyscrapers I see every day on my way to work. What was once sympathy feels more like empathy, though my daily struggle does not compare to what theirs once was.

I was honestly surprised by the lump in my throat at the end of the film. Assigned reading and in-class documentaries have disappointed in the past. However, this film truly differed. As I said, I was moved and touched in a way no film and certainly no documentary has ever affected me. I wanted to cry. I lost motivation. I asked my roommate, “Now I’m supposed to go to class?” So many thoughts were running through my head, and I was overcome with grief. I am glad people continue to share this film with others even over 50 years later. To know that the survivors have been able to share their stories does feel gratifying. To know that millions of people who were completely unaware to the struggle have virtually lived through the terrible experience helps.

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