Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
American Experience: A Class Apart takes a close look at a pivotal civil rights chapter of the 1950s, one that centered not on African-Americans but "Americans of Mexican Descent". Mexican Americans in the Southwest suffered serious discrimination from the end of the Mexican American War of 1848. After their land had been stolen, Confederates displaced by the Civil War simply transferred their racism to a new target, resulting in 90 years of third-class status that included separate and grossly unequal schools and ostracism from politics and the upper eschelons of amost every profession. Pools, public parks and theaters locked out Mexican-Americans, while restaurant associations printed up posters reading: "We don't serve niggers, dogs or Mexicans".
Refused service by funeral parlors, Mexican-Americans had to be buried immediately. A famous case ensued in WW2 when Private Felix Longoria, a combat veteran, was refused burial in any official cemetery. The anger of veterans seeking equality gave rise to a new effort to force Texas to give its Mexican-American citizens equal rights.
A Class Apart tells the story of a group of Mexican-American lawyers who searched and found a proper case to challenge the basic discriminatory practice of trying Mexican-American defendants with "all-white" juries. The 14th amendment helped Black Americans by prohibiting discrimination by race, but the Texas authorities classified Mexican-Americans as white, and therefore not entitled to 14th Amendment protection.
Lawyer Gustavo "Gus" García found the perfect taste case, a fairly open-and shut murder trial against Pedro Hernandez, a Mexican-American. When the judge threw out the objection that the defendant didn't have a jury of his peers, García took the case to appeal and lost there too. Texas judges said that the defendant had equal rights, while García had to use a segregated bathroom in the courthouse basement, and had to drive all the way home each night because the trial was held in a "Sundown Town" -- one in which minorities had better be off the streets after dark, or else.
Gathering more legal talent (Carlos Cardena, John Herrera) and using funds donated by Southwestern Mexican-Americans, the underdogs took the case to the Supreme Court in Washington D.C.
The American Experience show covers the 3-year story from crime to the landmark Supreme Court decision with an excellent montage of stills and scenes filmed in Texas and Washington, D.C.. Gus García emerges as a fascinating character who seems perfect for a movie version -- a handsome, tall man with a beautiful speaking voice, but apparently bedeviled by personal problems. Drinking to excess, he almost blows the D.C. budget and goes on a major drunk the night before he's to argue the case in front of the Supreme Court and Justice Earl Warren. A Class Apart keeps us interested all the way, with direct on-camera testimony with García's ex- wife, various legal and Mexican-American experts, and even one of the original Hernandez case legal team.
The show is a good antidote to the frequently-heard complaint that courts that decide on matters that change social policy are inappropriately "activist". Many social gains for justice and equality need to be protected, and even initiated somewhere. Even when a Supreme Court decision comes down that's unpopular with the majority, it's the best way of overturning ingrained, traditionalized inequity.
PBS Home Video's DVD of American Experience: A Class Apart is an excellent enhanced transfer of a color and B&W show. The archival stills look especially good, and a lively music score by Steven Schoenberg brings them to life. An obvious classroom winner, this docu is an excellent look at how America rights its wrongs.
A making-of featurette A Conversation with the Filmmakers is included, along some bonus "deleted" scenes and a slideshow of 1940s photos by Russell Lee. DVD-Rom extras include classroom materials for educators.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Experience: A Class Apart rates:
Sound: Excellent + Spanish language track and subtitles
Supplements: Making-of featurette, photo gallery, bonus scenes, materials for educators
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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