Judge Mike Pinsky recommends that history buffs check out this impassioned miniseries with all deliberate speed.
"I think when we predict what might happen, I know in the South, where I spent most of my time, you will see white and colored kids going down the road together to school. They separate and go to different schools, and they come out and they play together. I do not see why there would necessarily be trouble if they went to school together."—Thurgood Marshall, argument before the Supreme Court, December 10, 1952
South Carolina, 1950. Clarendon County is home to just another backwoods one-room schoolhouse. There is a minister, Reverend Delaine (Ed Hall), with a passion for teaching, and the desks are packed with earnest young faces. However, the school is in a poor district, and when Rev. Delaine asks the condescending white superintendent for a school bus so the students do not have to walk miles to class, he gets the brush-off. So Delaine gets the parents to file a lawsuit. Enter Thurgood Marshall (Sidney Poitier), an idealistic NAACP attorney looking for a test case to smash segregation.
Writer and director George Stevens, Jr., whose father specialized in grand Hollywood productions like Giant, mostly spends his time making tribute specials. But in this two-part television miniseries, Stevens shows a steady hand with material that could easily turn to sappy melodrama. Curiously, Separate But Equal focuses on only one of the four cases folded into the U.S. Supreme Court decision which became known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Marshall did specifically argue this case, first in South Carolina (where he lost), then in front of the Supreme Court, where new Chief Justice Earl Warren (an Eisenhower appointee with no judicial experience, here played by Richard Kiley) rallied the court to a unanimous decision.
The pace of Stevens' film is deliberate, often even slow. But there is plenty of story here to tell, and he takes care not to succumb to easy tricks. There is little music. Few characters raise their voices. The Klan only appears in a newsreel. Instead, Stevens allows his ensemble cast to deftly underplay as if they are only dimly aware of the historical significance of their actions. Sidney Poitier's Marshall, aided by Cleavon Little as fellow attorney Robert Carter, gathers his forces in South Carolina in Part One. In Part Two, Marshall and Carter head for Washington, D.C., where Marshall must face off against his idol, gentlemanly lawyer John W. Davis (Burt Lancaster, relaxed and charismatic in his final performance), a former civil libertarian who believes desegregation would actually harm the black community. Meanwhile, on the Supreme Court, the justices must struggle between their sense of morality and their need to find some legal justification to overthrow a century of state-sanctioned apartheid. Each of the justices is a distinct personality, with Felix Frankfurter (Mike Nussbaum) clearly the conscience of the court—at least until Warren reaches his epiphany.
Yes, all of the black characters in Separate But Equal are noble and kindhearted, even the ones who defend segregation as the safer choice. And yes, in the first half of the film, most of the whites are ignorant racists (at least until the end). But the film's second half is far more complex in its approach to the complexities of race relations and the law in the America of the 1950s. And Stevens has the benefit of the historical record to write his script—you can read Marshall's impassioned oratory for yourself. No wonder this brilliant legal mind later ended up sitting on the very court he convinced to dismantle one of the most unethical institutions ever endorsed by the U.S. legal system. Segregation was an idea whose time had passed, even if it took some people too long to see that.
Separate But Equal may prove that our country is capable of changing and correcting the mistakes of the past, but it also proves that those changes can only come when great individuals rise to the occasion.
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