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Separate but Equal (1991) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

rights civil legal davis

Principal social theme: racism/civil rights

Republic/New Liberty. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Richard Kiley, Cleavon Little, Gloria Foster, Ed Hall, Lynne Thigpen, Henderson Forsythe, Thomas Hollis, Randle Mell, Hallie Foote, Mark Hammer, Jack Rothman, Mike Nussbaum, Albert Hall. Written by George Stevens Jr. Cinematography by Nic Knowland. Edited by John W. Wheeler. Music by Carl Davis. Produced by Stan Margulies and George Stevens Jr. Directed by George Stevens Jr. Color. 206 minutes.

Overview

Separate but Equal is a methodical, detailed telefilm that examines one of the most important legal cases decided by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century, a case involving civil rights and the concept of racial segregation. The production did not seem well tailored to a two-night presentation playing on ABC on April 7 and 8, 1991. It could have benefited from tighter editing in a lengthier one-night format, and it drew rather tepid ratings. Nevertheless, the film was of the highest quality and received many Emmy nominations; it won as the best drama special of the year.

Synopsis

In 1950, a legal case develops in South Carolina when a school is denied a bus to transport black students. The principal contacts the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to accept the case, and their legal counsel Thurgood Marshall (Sidney Poitier) sees it as a good choice to challenge South Carolina’s segregation law. In 1951, a lower court upholds the state’s law. The case is appealed to the Supreme Court in 1952. Attorney John W. Davis (Burt Lancaster) is hired to defend the position of South Carolina. Davis’s daughter advises him not to take the case as she believes it would make him seem to be a racist. The gentle, soft-spoken Davis insists he is only defending the valid legal principle of states’ rights. The Chief Justice dies before a decision is reached, and the case is argued again in 1953. Earl Warren (Richard Kiley), the new Chief Justice, believes that segregation is wrong, but decides that a unanimous verdict is needed so that the Court can emphasize the importance of the issue. Warren spends many hours behind the scenes trying to persuade his colleagues to his viewpoint. When their decision is read, Thurgood Marshall is profoundly moved by the depth of the Court’s decision. Back at home, John W. Davis is also struck by the fact that the court ruled unanimously, agreeing with his daughter that desegregation would be good for the country as a whole.

Critique

Separate but Equal is an exceptional production despite its unevenness and occasional slow spots. The film is most effective when it deals with the legal arguments involving civil rights and equal protection under the law. A prologue to the film notes that much of it was based on first-hand interviews with a number of the participants and that historical consultants were also employed. However, the story was padded out with personal subplots that in some cases were fictional, and these distracted from the overall effectiveness of the presentation. The film’s greatest strength is the performances of the three leads. Burt Lancaster, in the last role of his career, is exceptional as John W. Davis, a lawyer’s lawyer, who defends the law of South Carolina with quiet conviction, framing his arguments with intelligence and dignity, untinged by any sense of racial prejudice. Sidney Poitier, as Thurgood Marshall, has a far greater sense of passion in his presentation, presenting the human face behind the issue of civil rights in his ardent presentation. The give and take of these issues in the judicial setting are compelling, and both actors clearly demonstrate the respect and esteem that these historic figures felt for each other as they debated their case. Richard Kiley, as Earl Warren, has an even more crucial role, to craft a unanimous agreement from eight associate justices with different sets of values. His persuasiveness in bringing about this landmark civil rights decision is truly enlightening for anyone examining the issue of civil rights at this juncture of American society.

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