I didn't know what to expect from Spike Lee's documentary, 4 Little Girls. Despite the well-done Malcolm X, the shallow treatment of race in some of his other films, particularly "Do the Right Thing" (more appropriately "Do the Race Thing"), made me doubt his ability to justly handle such an emotionally loaded subject -- the civil rights-era bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.With Lee's tendency to create one-dimensional, cardboard characters, it seemed he lacked either the courage or maturity to give racial conflict the kind of dramatic and emotional complexity that really brings artistic resonance. And even though Lee chose the documentary route, I believed he would find a way to reduce the project to a kind of cotton-candy militancy that, while cleverly done, would be devoid of any real substance and melt too easily in the mouths of a public hungry for the sensational.But I was pleasantly surprised. Lee pulls it off, masterfully creating a balanced and heartfelt portrayal of those trying times.Scheduled to be released on Feb. 23 during Black History Month, HBO hopes the timing will help the film attract more attention. It should. Not because of Black History Month, but because it's an important movie that's likely to be one of the best of the year.The documentary spotlights a single tragic incident in the long and harrowing struggle of the civil rights movement. On Sept. 15, 1963, four beautiful African-American girls, decked out in white dresses and shoes, went to Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. They never made it home. A timed explosive device planted under the church steps ripped through the building, sending a concussion of flying stone, glass and metal through the basement where the girls were preparing to lead the annual Youth Day service. Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carl Robertson -- ages 11 to 14 -- perished in the blast.More than a decade passed before the FBI made an arrest. With the help of his niece, who saw explosives in his house on the day of the bombing, a "career cracker" named Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted. Thought to be one of the infamous "Cahaba Boys," a well-known Klan faction in Birmingham that terrorized blacks during the 1960s, his nickname was "Dynamite Bob."Even during the most virulent days of racial conflict in the South, even in a city so plagued by explosives that it was nicknamed "Bombingham," this was a truly shocking crime.As television reporter Walter Cronkite said: "I don't think the white community really understood the depths of the problem and the depths of the hate of the Klan and its friends in the South, and the north too for that matter, until that incredibly mean, perverted, terrible crime of blowing up kids in a Sunday school basement ... This was the awakening."During a recent screening at the Carter Presidential Center, civil rights luminaries Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and father of victim Denise, Christopher McNair, shared their thoughts on that very dark hour of the civil rights movement." Spike Lee and HBO has made us take a look at Birmingham and the sickness that affected our lives," said Young. "The death of these four little girls forced people to take a look. It's important that we see this and try to understand it; these events changed the world."Despite the horrors of the event, the bombing of a church that served as the spiritual nerve center for blacks in the city, Lee doesn't sink to vilifying all whites (which I'm sure was tempting, considering the time and the crime).Among other whites, Taylor Branch and Howell Raines, both of whom have Atlanta connections, are portrayed as sympathetic to the black cause.Branch, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, and most recently Pillars of Fire was born and raised in Atlanta. Raines, whose 1983 article in the New York Times Magazine first piqued Lee interest in the film, began his early journalism career at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.Lee said his first and foremost objective was to capture in depth the lives of those four little girls.Beginning with the opening scene -- a moving and melancholy stroll through the cemetery where the girls are buried, punctuated by Joan Baez singing "Birmingham Sunday" -- Lee achieves his objective. Wisely, he primarily allows the friends and family of the girls, many of whom are still gripped by grief, to tell the story in their own words.Lee also shows us black-and-white images of Birmingham police Chief "Bull" Connor and his minions attacking marchers with German shepherds and skin-piercing firehoses. Then he takes a humorous stab at Gov. George Wallace. Wallace, who promised "segregation forever" in the '60s, is shown as an ailing old man whose speech has been rendered barely comprehensible by illness. During the interview, he keeps insisting that his best friend is an African American. He actually brings an apprehensive older black gentleman on screen to prove his point.In the end, 4 Little Girls gives us a piercing insight into the day-to-day struggles that confronted blacks in the deep South; blacks who were forced to drink from colored water fountains and forced to explain to their children why they couldn't buy a sandwich at a department store lunch counter simply because of the color of their skin.Most importantly, the movie is a penetrating and long-overdue portrait of those four precious little girls whose young lives were cut down so tragically, but in the end whose deaths were not in vain."The bad news is that four innocent babies were killed," said Jesse Jackson. "The good news is we were able to transform a crucifixion into a resurrection -- new life, new hope, new energy and more determination."Lest we forget, the film reminds us of the horrors we endured to get to where we are today, and of how far will still have to go to exorcise America of it racist demons.