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Artisan Home Entertainment presents
Separate But Equal (1991)

"Well, I don't guess I spent three years in the United States Navy to keep the world safe for Jim Crow."
- Harry Briggs (Tommy Hollis)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 02, 2003

Stars: Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster, Richard Kiley, Cleavon Little
Other Stars: Gloria Foster, John McMartin, Graham Beckel, Ed Hall, Lynne Thigpen, Macon McCalman, Randle Mell, Henderson Forsythe, Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Director: George Stevens Jr.

MPAA Rating: PG for (racism, racial epithets, violence)
Run Time: 03h:14m:01s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 017153139976
Genre: historical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB- D-

DVD Review

People often forget that in the early 1950s there were four separate cases taken to the Supreme Court of the United States by the NAACP on the issue of segregated schools. For some reason, the only one that is remembered today is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This television movie (originally aired in two parts) to a great extent remedies this myopic vision of the legal battles against racism by focusing on one of the other lesser-known cases.

In Clarendon County, South Carolina in 1950, the schools were still segregated by law. Harry Briggs (Tommy Hollis), a concerned father, seeks legal help for his son, who is forced to walk five miles to school while the white children are bused to their school. Although his first efforts are foiled, the case draws the attention of the NAACP. Their chief litigator, Thurgood Marshall (Sidney Poitier) comes to Clarendon County and determines that this would be a good case in which to not only challenge the inequality of the schools but to assert plainly that segregated schools are inherently unequal. The case wends its way through the courts until finally comingbefore the Supreme Court, where a sharply divided bench is faced with the repercussions throughout the country that any decision will produce.

The title comes from the principle established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the principle that segregation was permissible so long as the facilities provided were equal. This drama does a finer job than usual in portraying legal work, much of which is tedious research. But where the picture really shines is in demonstrating the bravery of the plaintiffs, in the face of intimidation, unemployment, arson and violence from the whites furious at their effrontery.

There's plenty of star power on view here, starting with Sidney Poitier giving a conviction-filled performance as Marshall. But equally formidable is his opponent, Burt Lancaster as former presidential candidate and top litigator John W Davis. Lancaster manages to give an unsympathetic role a human dimension and provide an inkling as to how such an indefensible position as segregation could be defended with vigor and intensity. Rounding out the triumvirate of notable actors at the top is Richard Kiley as Chief Justice Earl Warren. Along others worth mentioning is Gloria Foster, best known for playing the Oracle in the Matrix films, who, as his terminally-ill wife, gives Marshall some depth as well.

For a lengthy docudrama, the story is compelling. The focus takes an odd but necessary shift in the final half hour, as we watch Chief Justice Warren attempt first to develop a majority for integration and then to build upon that majority to provide a united front for the Court, a concept practically unimaginable among the splintered Court today. Warren is a fascinating character, who could hardly have been predicted to lead the Court into its most liberal directions in history when he was appointed by Eisenhower. The odd structure allows a glimpse of the inner workings of the Court and is certainly more satisfying than if we had kept our focus on the families; while they're not forgotten, there's less a feeling of a "decision handed down from on high" than to provide a look at the justices attempting to wrestle with the decision making process, and most astonishing of all to viewers today, to do the right thing, regardless of their political inclinations.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame television picture is maintained here. The print is very clean, featuring decent details and texture. Shadow detail is frequently lacking, however. For instance the camera significantly focuses on a bust of Lincoln but the features cannot be made out. A few pans downward, such as an establishing shot of Walter Reed Hospital, suffer from serious aliasing, but generally there are not many artifacts and no edge enhancement is present.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is quite clean, with little in the way of noise or hiss. The music has decent richness and presence, though there's almost nothing else in the way of surround activity or directionality besides the score. The dialogue is very clear throughout. Serviceable, but not flashy.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: No extras whatsoever. Chaptering is reasonably generous, and the layer change comes appropriately at the break in between the two segments of the film, originally presented on different nights.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

The fight for integration of the schools is vividly portrayed by a high-power cast. The transfer is pretty good, but there is nothing at all for extra material.


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