'Separate but Equal' a worthy docudrama

April 04, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

IT WAS SUCH a simple request. The white children of Clarendon county, South Carolina had 30 buses to take them to their schools in 1950. The black children had none. All they wanted was one of the old, beat-up ones that the white kids were finished with.

But they didn't get it. And so began one of the most important court cases in the history of this country, one that not only helped redefine what it means to be an American citizen, but also re-shaped the role of the Supreme Court in our government.

Eventually, when the Supreme Court made its decision in 1954, the case was known as Brown vs. the Board of Education after a challenge to segregation in Topeka, Kansas. But the court had combined five such cases, including ones from Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and this one from South Carolina. The Kansas case just happened to be listed first.

"Separate but Equal," a superb four-hour ABC miniseries that will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday and Monday nights at 9, focuses on the Clarendon County situation, in large part because it was the case handled by Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore native who was arguing before the justices he would join 15 years later.

Sidney Poitier, in his first television work in 35 years, portrays Marshall, a role that allows him to display the sensitivity of his acting skills as well as the brilliant power of his elocution.

Burt Lancaster is John W. Davis, the former presidential candidate and veteran Supreme Court attorney, who handled the arguments for the state of South Carolina before the nation's top tribunal.

Richard Kiley, who plays Chief Justice Earl Warren, is the best-known name in the rest of the cast that shows remarkable depth and near perfection in casting.

That's necessary because one of the main strengths of "Separate but Equal" is that while it gives us the opportunity to see these giant figures of history play on that stage -- and see the giant figures of acting portray them -- it never loses sight, even when it reaches its loftiest legal aeries, of the fact that this was a case about real people, seeking real rights.

This is most evident in Sunday's Part 1 that stays well-anchored in the events of Clarendon County, where a courageous local black teacher, and the father of one of his pupils, began this fight over the school bus.

Since this seemed to be a clear case of the failure of the "separate but equal" test that had been applied since the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling in the late 19th century upheld segregation, the NAACP defense fund, headed by Marshall, got involved.

Unlike most civil-rights dramas, "Separate but Equal" does not paint its pictures only in shades of pure good and evil. Certainly it has its share of racist rednecks and sainted civil-rights advocates. In between, however, are well-meaning whites, such as South Carolina's Gov. James Byrnes, who honestly believed that segregation was the best system for both races, and equally well-intentioned blacks who opposed Marshall's pushing this case to the Supreme Court, fearing defeat would replace the victories they had won in the move toward equality under the separate-but-equal statues. Those decisions, they believed, were eroding segregation without the danger of a frontal assault on the entrenched institution.

Monday's Part 2 unfortunately gets a bit detached from the lives of the people in South Carolina who started this case. But, even as it deals with highly abstract issues of constitutional law, it constantly reminds you that it was not unseen forces of history at work, it was just people, with all their flaws and foibles, both arguing the case and struggling with its decision.

For, unlike many of the landmark cases of the Warren court, this one was far from a foregone conclusion. The vote could easily have gone the other way. And if it were not for Warren's skillful writing and lobbying, even a judgment against segregation might have come from a badly split court further splintering the nation.

Indeed, to its infinite credit, "Separate but Equal," does not make the Brown decision a museum piece, simply to be admired and praised. Indeed, it makes you wonder what would have happened had the court decided differently, writing that segregation was a disgusting, immoral institution, but that its hands were tied by the Constitution, that it would be up to Congress to fight this battle. If the decision had then caused Congress to act and the edict against segregated schools had come from the nation's elected representatives, and not from its appointed judiciary, integration may well have traveled a smoother and more successful path.

Writer and director George Stevens Jr., who was also responsible for "The Murder of Mary Phagan," uses a quiet, effective directorial style that relies on evocative set-pieces almost still lifes, many filmed on location around Charleston.

Stevens avoids the simplistic this-happened-then-that-happened storytelling style so often employed in historic docudramas. Instead, his approach uses the poignancy of each moment chosen for dramatization, as much as its narrative content, to advance the story.

"Separate but Equal" makes you appreciate the complex legal concepts involved in this argument, as well as its simple human dramas. Suffice it to say, it is a miniseries worthy of this historic, important decision.

"Separate but Equal"

*** This four-hour production tells of the South Carolina case argued by Thurgood Marshall that led to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision against segregated schools.

CAST: Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster

TIME: Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.

CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)

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