In 1953, Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP, took five cases relating to racial discrimination in the public school system before the Supreme Court, and argued that the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling of 1896 was unconstitutional. Plessy vs. Ferguson famously confirmed that segregation in public schools was okay as long as the conditions of students in white or colored schools was "separate but equal", an idea that Marshall and his colleagues felt was a contradiction. In 1991, legendary television producer / director George Stevens Jr. assembled an impressive cast for a television dramatization, also called Separate But Equal, with Sidney Poitier playing Thurgood Marshall, and Burt Lancaster playing his legal opposition, John W. Davis.
The primary venue for Separate But Equaled since it first aired on television has almost certainly been grade school classrooms. To that end, it's an excellent program, capturing not just Thurgood Marshall's long legal journey, but also stepping away from Marshall's perspective and providing a good look at how the Supreme Court makes decisions such as this one (even considering the usual dramatic liberties taken in adapting a true story). As a pure drama, it's a little less compelling; handsomely produced, for sure, and well-acted, but a little simplistic, offering some great speeches from Poitier but little in the way of subtext or deeper drama. One of the very things that makes it a great teaching piece -- its study of the machinations of the law, and its reiteration of the arguments being used for and against desegregation -- weaken it as a piece of filmmaking.
Poitier is a fine choice for Marshall, especially when it comes to selling the conviction with which Marshall argues his case that segregation is inherently unequal. His big moments are fairly standard stuff: building monologues that silence otherwise otherwise hectic audiences, and occasionally give way to applause, complete with the actor's iconic blend of heart-wrenching emotion and steely-eyed resolve. However, his bigger accomplishment may be in giving a little weight to Marshall's home life with his wife, Buster (Gloria Stuart), who is slowly dying of cancer. The scripting of many of these scenes is cursory or conventional, but he and Stuart give their relationship a lived-in, honest feel. One of the little details the film occasionally returns to is a birthday gift of a model train set, which Poitier regards with a childlike earnestness.
Poitier is supported by a number of talented actors, some of which are surprising in their effectiveness. Ed Hall plays Reverend J.A. Delaine, principal of a school in Clarendon county, concerned about one student's five-mile hike to school and back (an amalgamation of the Brown in "Brown vs. the Board of Education" and Briggs in "Briggs vs. Elliott"). Hall is nicely understated, playing both weariness and strength at the same time, trudging dutifully up the steps to the courtroom. Richard Kiley is Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed after the sudden death of the existing Chief Justice. He's all warm smiles and thoughtful understanding, which can feel a little simple, but Kiley is good enough that the viewer will want to believe the process was that smooth and diplomatic. Future star Jeffrey Wright also has a small but memorable role as one of Marshall's team. Honestly, the great Burt Lancaster is kind of wasted in a role that would be his last performance, without much nuance to the way he confidently assumes he'll beat Marshall.
It would be wrong to say that Separate But Equal is self-congratulatory, but it is comfortably couched in the knowledge that viewers who see it are living in the world Marshall helped create, and are well aware that segregation is as wrong as he argues it is. It's an engaging story, but not an exciting one, failing to wring much drama out of the story because it's more focused on that story than the characters themselves, and what it was like to be in that position, making that case. What should feel triumphant is merely an affirmation of everything the audience is already expecting to happen, rather than the culmination of Marshall's efforts. A line of voice-over at the end of the film mentions a detail about the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that ought to feel a little bittersweet, but instead it feels like another fact in a story that's more concerned with history than people.
The new artwork for this DVD has a bunch of ideas about where to go with the image and it just kind of haphazardly throws all of them together. The image of the boy walking home as the bus for the white children drives past is a striking one. It's historical, so there may be an inclination to go with headlines and old newsprint colors. Of course, since the film has an actor as commanding as Sidney Poitier in the lead, he's gotta be on there too. So, of course, we get the image of the kid walking home with Poitier nonsensically pasted in, with a headline faded over it and a sepia filter on top of all of it. Kind of a mess, and has a cheap or overly simple modern design look to it. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Amaray, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
No doubt hundreds of teachers across the nation will breathe a sigh of relief hearing they've got one more VHS tape they can retire. Separate But Equal is old enough that it was shot on 35mm film, and although the 1.33:1 image on this disc could improve substantially if the negative were re-scanned, what's offered here is well above average. Grain is visible throughout, giving dark night scenes a bit of texture, and detail is pleasingly stable for an old TV program, with whatever softness is present coming off like film softness rather than age softness. Color appears accurate, without any of the fading or distortion that also comes with old TV, and there is almost no print damage, aside from a very rare fleck or two. Shadow detail may be a touch crushed, but it's hardly pervasive, and no banding or artifacting is visible within. The only quibble is that the picture is interlaced, leading to some noticeable ghosting, although I have seen worse from similar titles. Sound is a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that basically boils down to the separation of music and effects from the dialogue, but it gets the job done. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
One lengthy, informative supplement is included, although unsurprisingly, it concerns history, not Separate But Equal. "See It Now: A Study of Two Cities" (27:07) is a black-and-white 1954 television report by Edward R. Murrow in the wake of the Supreme Court's historic decision, and features a wide variety of interviews with people from that time period on their reactions to the case. It's an incredible, incredible historical document, that only further cements how far America has gone from polite discourse and disagreement. Absolutely wonderful, and a perfect companion piece to the film. Sound is sometimes a on the spotty side, and the end of the program is significantly damaged, but this supplement also offers English closed captions, and is well worth checking out despite the quality of the elements.
As a teaching resource, Separate But Equal should open up a number of great conversations about the race relations in the 1950s, the justice system, and how changes to the Constitution are made. As a movie, it leaves something to be desired, focusing more on how history was made than those who made it. This DVD, however, does come with a fantastic extra feature that provides a look at real people from the days after the events of the film took place. Overall, lightly recommended.