At the start of Separate But Equal (ABC, April 7 and 8, 9-11 p.m. each night) it’s 1950 in Clarendon County, S.C., where black children must walk as much as five or six miles to get to and from their run-down, segregated elementary school. The father of one of the students, an auto mechanic named Harry Briggs (Tommy Hollis), decides he’s had enough. Sick of seeing his young son trudge home too tired to do his homework, he enlists the boy’s teacher to implore the local superintendent of schools to provide a bus.
The request is quickly and rudely turned down. As Separate But Equal shows, that small but significant incivility helped to inspire a series of legal petitions and decisions in Clarendon County and elsewhere that eventually resulted in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating America’s schools. The case also brought the shrewdness and eloquence of a young NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, to the attention of the nation. As he is played by Sidney Poitier, Marshall seems the most admirable hero that television has shown us in a long time.
Over the course of Separate But Equal’s four hours, executive producer- director-writer George Stevens Jr. (The Murder of Mary Phagan) describes history in big, broad strokes. After the bus request is denied, a group of Clarendon County blacks petition the state supreme court not only for a bus but also for school facilities and supplies equal in quality to those of the all-white schools in the area. Marshall, based in New York, hears about the petition and, along with his Legal Defense Fund colleagues, decides the Clarendon County situation is in keeping with a new nationwide movement toward desegregation.
At the state hearing, Marshall draws on the research of social psychologist Kenneth Clark (Damien Leake), which suggests that segregation fosters discrimination and feelings of inferiority among black children. Linking the Clarendon County petition to desegregation cases simultaneously being brought to the U.S. Supreme Court by Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund bring their case to the Supreme Court. ”If we don’t challenge the segregation laws,” Marshall says, ”we will always be separate but never equal.”
The exhilaration of Separate But Equal — and despite its serious subject and solemn air, it is exhilarating — is in watching Marshall and his crew of overworked, underpaid NAACP lawyers put their case together; they transformed themselves into the David that would defeat the Goliath of segregation. Goliath, in this case, is personified by state attorney John W. Davis, who argues against the plaintiffs.
Davis, whose position was that ”legal segregation and discrimination are not the same thing,” is played by Burt Lancaster, and the portrayal is typical of the actor’s immensely enjoyable latter-day work, full of quiet power and authority. Of course, Poitier is no slouch either. Poitier rarely appears on television, but his reserved acting style — his hushed voice and quick, precise gestures — are well suited to the small screen. His Thurgood Marshall doesn’t square with television’s usual portrayal of great lawyers as impassioned showboaters. Poitier embodies the virtues of long, hard study and intellectualism, and when was the last time those qualities were the focus of a made-for-TV movie?
There’s a clarity and calmness in Stevens’ storytelling that permit us to follow all the twists and turns of the legal proceedings. Also, it is an enormous relief to see that Stevens hasn’t wasted our time with that bane of real-life TV movies: scenes from the subject’s personal life, with private conversations that never ring true. We do meet Marshall’s wife, known as Buster (she’s played by Gloria Foster), and learn that she was suffering from cancer during these years. But most of the emphasis in this movie remains where it belongs: on Marshall’s career and accomplishments.
Separate But Equal is marred by its structure, which is oddly off balance. The first night builds to a showdown between Marshall and Davis, but after a few rousing courtroom speeches, Lancaster’s role diminishes considerably. The second night of Separate But Equal shifts its focus to Richard Kiley (A Year in the Life) as Chief Justice Earl Warren, who is portrayed as a crucial convert to desegregation. He’s shown persuading a number of his colleagues on the Court to vote his way.
Kiley gives a beautifully modulated, thoughtful performance, but the emphasis on Warren in Stevens’ screenplay seems almost capricious. During many of the long scenes involving Warren, I got restless, wondering what Marshall and his men were doing while we were spending all this time watching the behind-the-scenes workings of the Supreme Court.
Marshall himself became a Supreme Court justice in 1967, but Separate But Equal leaves him at a moment of youthful triumph, his case won and desegregation the law of the land. He remains characteristically modest: ”Sometimes history takes things into its own hands,” he remarks. At a time when civil rights remains a crucial, complex issue in this country, Separate But Equal is a gratifyingly complex TV movie.