Written and Directed by: George Stevens Jr.
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Richard Kiley, Cleavon Little, Gloria Foster
Released by: Artisan
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format
My Advice: If you’re a teacher, rent it.
To understand the importance of the events in Separate But Equal, you need a little history lesson. And no groaning. In 1896, The Supreme Court ruled on the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. It said that separate facilities for whites and blacks were constitutional if the facilities were equal. Of course, many states had separate but unequal systems, but found many ways to justify this–and blacks didn’t have much political strength at the time. With this precedent, the high court kept the concept of segregation intact. Until 1950 when this story begins.
But Marshall isn’t satisfied. He takes this case, merges it with similar cases in Delaware, Virginia, Kansas, and Washington, D.C., and heads to the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor counters this by hiring William B. Davis (Lancaster), “the lawyer’s lawyer,” who had argued more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone else. He believes that the court shouldn’t decide on an issue that has always been a prerogative of the states and the court had already given its opinion on segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Added to this formidable obstacle are members of the NAACP who think Marshall is risking stopping the civil rights movement in its tracks if the court rules in the states’ favor, not to mention bankrupting the organization in the process. And the new Chief Justice Earl Warren adds an uncertainty to the court proceedings. One thing is certain; history is going to be made.
Historical dramas have some difficulty in creating dramatic tension. I mean we all know that the Court decides nine to zero in favor of integration. (And if you didn’t, shame on your American History teacher) So it focuses on the little details in order to create that tension. Unfortunately, most of it is what those nasty white Southerners are going to do to those poor black people. Now I know that many people were racist or at least reluctant to use a cheap labor force, but practically all the whites in the South Carolina scenes come off as bigoted assholes and loving every minute of it. I can’t believe that there weren’t some whites around that wanted blacks to be equal to them. A couple of scenes of whites showing some kindness would have balanced this. Now on the NAACP side, we do see some division. Several characters express their fear that Marshall is taking a huge gamble by giving the Supreme Court another chance to reaffirm the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. But Marshall’s confidence manages to win over (or at least cow) his critics.
Poitier keeps Marshall’s confidence from turning to arrogance and honestly Poitier has forgotten more about acting than most actors will ever know. And Lancaster conveys how Davis was able to vigorously defend a principle, states’ rights, without worrying about the morality of his client. His lack of doubt is rather refreshing after the ethical hand wringing we have seen from lawyers in shows like L.A. Law or The Practice. The performances are all good, but the basic approach of the story could have been better.
And while they are no extras on the disc, I can’t be too critical since Separate But Equal is over three hours long and there’s not much room on the disc for anything substantial. While this may be good to rent for a class to spark discussion on the Civil Rights Movement, I wouldn’t recommend it for a night’s entertainment.