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Separate But Equal

4.8 out of 5 stars 83 customer reviews

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(May 20, 2003)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

The true story of the most important legal battle of our time. The year is 1950…and America is divided between black and white. Schools, restaurants, trains and buses…even drinking fountains cannot be shared by both races. Although slavery has been outlawed for nearly a century, segregation is legal. The dramatic events leading from a small rural classroom to the Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation are powerfully reenacted in this contemporary screen classic, beautifully scripted and superbly portrayed by some of Hollywood's finest actors, including Sidney Poitier.

One of the most pivotal moments in 20th century American history is bracingly dramatized in Separate but Equal. In telling the detailed story of the Supreme Court's 1953 decision to abolish racial segregation in schools, this superb 1991 TV movie covers a broad spectrum of issues, never taking its "eyes off the prize" while its first-rate cast conveys the importance of the Supreme Court's ultimately unanimous decision. It was the culmination of a lengthy, legally complex, and morally compelling struggle that began humbly in South Carolina in 1950, where future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Sidney Poitier)--then a New York-based lawyer for the NAACP--fought on behalf of an underprivileged black community facing social injustice despite the 1896 decision (Plessy v. Ferguson) that promised "separate but equal" treatment in the wake of slavery's abolition. Both direction and script by George Stevens Jr. are utterly conventional, but with so much dignity and fine acting in the service of a noble undertaking (including Burt Lancaster's final performance, as opposing counsel John W. Davis), Separate but Equal achieves a lasting importance of its own. --Jeff Shannon

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Richard Kiley, Cleavon Little, Gloria Foster
  • Directors: George Stevens Jr.
  • Writers: George Stevens Jr.
  • Producers: George Stevens Jr., Joel Segal, Stan Margulies, Ted Swanson
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, Full Screen, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated:
    Parental Guidance Suggested
  • Studio: Republic Pictures
  • DVD Release Date: May 20, 2003
  • Run Time: 190 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00008RV0D
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,820 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Separate But Equal" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lawrance Bernabo HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on December 9, 2002
Format: VHS Tape
"Separate But Equal" puts three names about the credits: Sidney Portier as Thurgood Marshall, Burt Lancaster as John W. Davis, and Richard Kiley as Earl Warren. This is significant because it helps to personify the three sides in the monumental Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall headed the NAACP lawyers who challenged the legal doctrine that legitimized segregation in the South. Davis represented the interests of the states, not out of a sense of bigotry but out of legal principle; after all, it was the Supreme Court that had established the separate but equal doctrine. This becomes a key part of the dilemma that Chief Justice Warren faced because the law was obviously legal--it just also happened to be wrong.
This excellent 1991 docudrama was aired in two parts. The first part looks at the segregated school system in Claredon County, South Carolina, one of the four cases that comprised the ruling, and the harm of segregation is captured in a memorable sequence in which young black children always pick the white doll rather than the black doll to describe who is smarter, better, etc. The second part of the film deals with the lengthy process by which the high court deliberated the case, doing a better job of capturing the process than any drama I have ever seen.
Portier provides Marshall with all the dignity appropriate to the role, and it is a treat to see the actor play a lawyer arguing before the high court. Lancaster, in his final role, performs a key function: he is earnest and likeable, which means that in the context of this story our opposition has to be to his position and not to him personally. In other words, this is a legal matter that has to be determined on the point of law and not on our feelings about bigots and racism.
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Format: VHS Tape
In 1896, the Supreme Court decided, in Plessy V. Ferguson, that racial segregation was legal as long as equal facilities were provided for both races. It was not until the late 1940s that the Court began to insist on equality of treatment. The first case to tackle the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine was the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954. The movie, Separate But Equal, addresses the Brown case. It is a wonderfully done, educational, and entertaining film. The movie is entitled Separate But Equal because that is the issue being addressed throughout the film. The movie is extremely historically accurate, but also gives the viewer insights into the emotions that the key players went through. Harry Briggs, Jr. is a black child in a school in Clarendon County, South Carolina. His teacher and minister, Rev. Dulane, notices that he is falling asleep during class. When he investigates the cause of this tiredness, he realizes that Harry has to walk many miles to and from school every day. When Dulane sees that white children who live far away from their schools are provided with buses while black children are not, he decides to protest. Rev. Dulane first approaches Superintendent Springer, the superintendent of their district. He asks solely for a single, old bus (adding that they will provide the gas) and a little bit of money for the school. The superintendent denies him these meager requests, saying that whites pay more taxes and are therefore entitled to better facilities. Dulane is infuriated. What happened to "separate but equal?" Rev. Dulane hires a lawyer. Together, they approach Harry Briggs, Sr. and ask if he would like to push the case. Briggs agrees.Read more ›
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Format: VHS Tape
Made-for-TV dramas have a certain duality about them. On the one hand, they have a heightened sense of melodrama, because, after all, they have to get you to tune back in after the commercial break. On the other hand, they tend to have more time to tell a story, and so can get at details a 2-hour movie might miss.
Such is the case here. SEPARATE BUT EQUAL does personalize the issues surrounding the Brown vs. Board of Education fight in an engaging way, while also managing to sort through the gamut of relevant legal opinions. I think that in general, the film does a remarkable job in this regard, and would be an excellent place to begin one's appreciation for the legal issues surrounding the case.
Still, in its effort to give us drama, it invites questions about certain aspects of the personal history on display.
One of the most obvious problems is also something I would hesitate to change: Sidney Poitier's performance. Thurgood Marshall in interviews sounds NOTHING like Poitier. Forget that Poitier is too old to play a man in his thirties. Poitier, and perhaps the screenwriter, simply fails to capture the colloquial essence of the man. Even so, it's too mesmerizing a performance to simply dismiss.
In its conveyance of the Supreme Court Justices, however, SEPARATE BUT EQUAL falters over more than mere accent. Much of the last hour of the movie is the story of the deliberation of the Supreme Court Justices, and I found myself wanting documentation to support the scenes displayed. Clearly, a unanimous decision of the court after a two-year deliberation would've required the kind of diplomacy that Earl Warren is shown pursuing here.
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