Separate but Equal (1991)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Courtroom Drama, Docudrama  |   Release Date - Apr 7, 1991 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 200 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Tom Wiener

Documenting a landmark Supreme Court decision sounds like risky business for a dramatist, but writer/director George Stevens Jr. does an admirable job with this miniseries about the 1954 school desegregation case that went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. Sidney Poitier dominates the first three quarters of the film in what is an old-fashioned star performance. There are no concessions to disguising Poitier to look like Thurgood Marshall; one would think that Marshall, who retired from the court the year this film was shown on TV, must have been tickled to be forever remembered, at least by viewers of this film, as a dead ringer for the eternally handsome Poitier. The possibility of a courtroom showdown between Poitier and Burt Lancaster, as John W. Davis, who argued for the states' rights position in the case, doesn't develop into an Inherit the Wind-style showdown. This is due largely to the nature of the Supreme Court's sessions, in which there are no witnesses for the opposing attorneys to cross-examine. Lancaster, making his last screen appearance, is frail but still manages to convey enough vigor and zest to make Davis a worthy and even respectable adversary. In short, he doesn't come off as a racist. (The film points out that Davis even defended socialist activist Eugne V. Debs and alleged communist Alger Hiss during his career.) Davis' concession remarks to his daughter when the final decision is announced are gracious and couldn't be better delivered by any other American actor. The film very astutely details the divisions in the African-American community at the time; some felt that it was best to ask for equalizing the segregated facilities (which was how the case started in Clarendon County, SC) and that desegregation was pushing too hard too quickly. Nicely played, too, is Marshall's concern over his wife, Buster (Gloria Foster), and her encroaching cancer. Stevens also shows in great detail how the ascension of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Richard Kiley) to the bench in the middle of the case gave Marshall and his NAACP cohorts hope for victory, as Warren became a more active jurist than his predecessor, Fred Vinson. The scenes in which Warren persuades the dissenting justices one by one to make the decision unanimous conclude the film on a satisfyingly rich note.