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Featured DVD Review: Separate But Equal

May 4th, 2014

Separate But Equal - Buy from Amazon

Sidney Poitier made a number of movies that dealt with race relations over the years, including Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. He also starred in the TV mini-series Separate But Equal, which is about the landmark segregation decision. Is it as powerful as some of his previous films? And is the DVD worth picking up?

The Movie

The film begins in 1950 in Carendone County, South Carolina where the Scott Branch School was. Calling the town poor or the school dilapidated is an understatement and this is hurting the kids' ability to learn. Or to be more specific, it's hurting the black kids' ability to learn. Many of them have to walk several miles to get to school and again back to home. As a result, many kids don't have the energy to learn. The principal of the school, Reverend J.A. Delaine (Ed Hall), goes to the superintendent to see if he can get just one bus, the oldest bus, just to help get the kids to school. He's told in no uncertain terms that won't happen (the n-word is dropped) so he decides to take another route. He sues under the 14th Amendment. Since they provide school buses for white kids they have to do the same for black kids. The first case gets thrown out, because the parent who sued didn't live in the same county as the school his child goes to. As a result, Reverend Delaine decides to bring in some heavy hitters.

He called the NAACP who sends a civil rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall. He says he will go forward with the case, if 20 people sign up to sue. One person suing too often results in a loss due to a technicality, like with the first case, or with intimidation. While Reverend Delaine tries to collect signatures, he feels some of this intimidation, but he gets there. This scares the politicians enough to try and buy their way out of the problem. They think if they can improve the black schools that the lawsuit will go away. However, when you use the n-word to describe little kids, it doesn't matter if you are willing to pay for a bus, and a raise, you've burnt too many bridges for that.

There is one last thing to work out. Thurgood Marshall is unsure whether the NAACP should go after this as a "separate but equal" case, in which case the law is 100% on their side. Or whether or not they should go after segregation directly, in which case they are challenging the law. Neither the NAACP nor its supporters are itching to start a big war and Thurgood Marshall knows that, so he's starting slow. However, he knows this case will turn into something big, just as long as he's not seen as starting something big.

Separate But Equal is a dialogue driven drama that is not without its flaws, but still a very compelling TV mini-series. It wouldn't be unfair to say this film had a deliberate pace, while "dialogue driven" is an understatement. Fortunately, the acting as fantastic so listening to the characters talk and talk and talk is never dull. I'm not surprised Sidney Poitier earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination. Too many films that deal with civil rights are shown from the point of view of a white person, like in Mississippi Burning. Fortunately, they do that there. There are obviously some important roles played by white people; almost all of the people in authority were white. Burt Lancaster is excellent in his final performance playing the opposing council, while Richard Kiley also picked up an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination.

The Extras

There is only one extra on the DVD, but it is a 27-minute long news special from the 1950s. It is an excellent extra to be included on this DVD.

The Verdict

Separate But Equal is worth owning, especially if you have any interested in the Civil Rights movement. The DVD has only one extra, but it is extensive and certainly worth checking out. Overall, it is worth purchasing rather than just renting.

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Filed under: Video Review, Separate But Equal, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, Richard Kiley