Argumentative August #36 – Separate But Equal (1991) – Rhyme and Reason


Ryan and I would like to once again welcome you to another review for our Argumentative August Blogathon.


This next film, Separate But Equal (1991) is being reviewed by SG of Rhyme and Reason


Let’s see what SG thought of this movie….





“Separate but equal,”

They cited the law.

Separate but equal

And so it should stay.

Some called it fair

With no thought for its flaw,

Clear inequality

On full display.


“Separate but equal”

Could only be felled

By unequalled lawyers

Intent on the right.

Separate but equal,

To justice they held,

And “separate but equal”

Could not win the fight.



Rating: PG


Winner of the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries, Separate but Equal is one of those historically significant miniseries that have nearly been forgotten by modern audiences. It follows the timeline of the historic court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka from its unassuming roots in a simple request for a school bus to its landmark Supreme Court verdict that eliminated segregation in all American public schools. In doing so, it mirrors films like Lincoln and Apollo 13 in transforming a “this happened” textbook event into a compelling drama that is nowhere near as simple as the schoolbooks imply.

Sidney Poitier likewise succeeds in making the historical figure of Thurgood Marshall into a relatable personality, and while he occasionally overdoes the intensity of his speeches, he once again proves himself as one of the finest actors ever, black or otherwise. He knows what is right, as do most of the decision makers, but the difficulty rests in proving it to a hesitant nation. He never makes it look easy, and often depends on the assistance of his NAACP partners (including Lynne Thigpen, Cleavon Little, and an early role for Jeffrey Wright) and his devoted wife Buster (Gloria Foster), who looks and smokes just like the Oracle from the first two Matrix films. The struggle for civil rights is a familiar one, and while the film has plenty of impassioned monologues, it also features numerous “show-don’t-tell” examples of how separation is inherently unequal, such as the little boy who must walk miles to school, even as whites-only school buses rumble by. Aside from repeated use of the N-word, the film also shed light on the unfortunate mindset of inferiority among many African Americans, long before “Black is beautiful” became an encouraging catchphrase.

Watching the film, I was constantly wondering why a film about a lawsuit mentioning Topeka would focus on South Carolina. Why the case wasn’t Briggs vs. Elliott, since that was both chronologically and alphabetically before Brown, I don’t know, but the film does take several pit stops along the way to the key decision: setbacks in the lower courts, unsatisfactory arguments, debates among the NAACP’s supporters over how far they should reach before pressing their luck. All of this adds up to a fascinating depiction of a court case that was far from black and white.

As undeniably right as Marshall and Brown were, it’s important to note that, based on history and legal precedent alone, the decision should have gone the other way. Burt Lancaster, in his last and perhaps most studious role as famous opposing lawyer John W. Davis, is well-balanced in not being against African Americans but presenting some very persuasive arguments in favor of keeping the law and the country stable. As several characters state, precedent is a powerful tool for stability, so how does one prove that precedent, like Plessy vs. Ferguson, is wrong? Questions about the danger of krytocracy (rule by judges) and the potential overreach of a mere nine unelected leaders are still relevant today, and though the decision was unanimous, that was largely due to some providential circumstances and the lobbying of newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren (Richard Kiley).

Through the film’s presentation of both the biases that made desegregation necessary and the unvilified conflicting views that made it unlikely, Thurgood Marshall’s success in achieving desegregation is given added weight and triumph. History is never easy to make, and Separate but Equal illustrates that victoriously.

Best line: (Marshall, speaking in the lower court) “In South Carolina, all the state officials are white. All the school officials are white. This is not just segregation. This is exclusion from the group that runs everything.”



Rank: List-Worthy



© 2015 S. G. Liput

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