Noah Schuettge is a recent transplant to Birmingham, AL and is serving as an AmeriCorps member in the Social Justice department at the YWCA Central Alabama.
“Is Birmingham in the house?” It’s hard to tell if the response to Spike Lee’s question is a “yes” or just the incredible adulation of two thousand plus screaming fans at the Alabama Theatre this past weekend. Spike Lee came to Birmingham for a special showing of his 1997 documentary “Four Little Girls.” The free screening was part of the 50 Years Forward events this past week commemorating 1963 and Birmingham’s place at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham’s reception of Spike Lee speaks volumes to how the city is commemorating, but also empowering during this 50 year anniversary. As Lee made special note of how many young people were present in the audience, I couldn’t help but think of my own choice to enter the dialogue about race in this country, and how this might have something to do with Spike Lee.
I first saw “Do the Right Thing” at a young age (probably too young) and its impact was immense. As a white child living in the suburbs of Boston I was confused at how the film took place in an era during my lifetime. “Do the Right Thing” alerted me to current racial tensions and injustices in America, but mostly how an unwillingness to know the “other” can build to hatred and even violence. Fast forward to 2005: I am a senior in high school, hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, and my blinders to systemic racial injustice begin to recede. A year later, Spike Lee releases “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts,” an ambitious documentation of Katrina’s destruction and the explicit and nuanced racial prejudices which followed the storm. Lee’s films have empowered me to learn and talk more about the history and current state of race relations in America.
Like his documentary on Katrina, “Four Little Girls” relies on emotional first person narration to convey a personal message of tragedy and injustice. We are reminded that these four girls were people, with emotions, personalities, hopes, and most importantly, futures. Lee’s “Joint” still seems relevant as ever when we see the mothers of the fallen girls cry on screen as if the bomb was detonated moments before filming. The message is clear: 50 years later, the wounds are still fresh, and reopening all the time in a country still plagued by bigotry and racially motivated violence. But I think the feeling in the Alabama Theatre on Sunday was one of hope. A film activist had come to town to share a vision of 50 years ago, telling us to “never forget” and encouraging us to keep learning and talking.
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