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. And, as the only Governor of California to be simultaneously nominated by both the Democratic and Republican parties, Warren surely would've possessed such a light touch with people. But each Justice is given a very specific legal viewpoint, and I wonder to what degree the Justices actually had those exact sentiments.
Also, I think the film doesn't accurately portray Earl Warren and Marshall's reaction to him. From the moment Warren is appointed Chief Justice, the NAACP is seen as preferring "the devil you know" in Chief Justice Vinson, to "the devil you don't" in Warren. The basis for this trepidation is a briefly shown newspaper clipping tying Warren to the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The movie then has Marshall saying something to the effect of, "It doesn't matter who's sitting on the bench. We have to get back to work." The matter is then dropped and never revisited. Later, we get a few moving scenes in which Warren goes on a trip with his African-American driver. Along the way, his driver, though a WW II veteran, is subjected to segregation, much to Warren's dismay. He therefore returns to Washington with a new-found fire in his belly and proceeds to craft a 9-0 victory. It's good drama, of course, but it's dubiously accurate.
The actual historical record suggests that Warren was, during peacetime, already pretty fair-minded before getting to Washington. Yet during World War II, as a sitting state Attorney General, he was responsible for advising FDR to violate the 14th Amendment and strip Japanese-Americans of their rights without due process. More ominously, he drew up a specific plan of deportation which, as Attorney General and later Governor, he was responsible for implementing. But neither of these halves of his public service really sees the light of day in this movie. Instead, he's portrayed as being a vaguely negative force that gets converted to the cause.
Also, Marshall's reaction to Warren's appointment was actually much more positive than the movie would have you believe. Far from preferring the "devil you know", they were ecstatic to be rid of Vinson. Marshall didn't want to argue the case before Vinson at all, because he thought the former Chief Justice was just "mean". The film slightly gives the impression that it was Marshall's first trip to the Supreme Court, but in fact Marshall and Vinson had crossed swords before, and Marshall knew there was little he could do to sway Vinson. Indeed the movie misses a bit of actual, historical drama by not exploring the relationship between Vinson and Marshall more. When Marshall decided to bring the case to the Supreme Court, over the objections of other NAACP members, he was actually taking a much bigger risk than he let on in the movie, because Vinson was so cranky he often didn't let counsel answer with more than a simple "yes" or "no"--hardly the kind of communication that can persuade a person from their view.
Also, this notion that Marshall didn't care who was on the bench is rubbish. He was on a train to California immediately after Warren's appointment to the high court. He went on a mission to try to get any information he could about the Governor. After discovering that Warren had a long streak of civil libertarianism in him, Marshall began to believe for the first time that they would win the case. It's clear from Marshall's own voice that far from casting a pall on the NAACP team, Warren's appointment was seen at the time as a positive boon. This, sadly, is not reflected in the screenplay.
Laying these details aside, however, the overall effect of SEPARATE BUT EQUAL is powerful. The legal arguments are summarized in a comprehensible way, and the drama, if not historically accurate in each scene, still manages to evoke the feeling of the era. This is a film you'll want to not just rent but own. There's so much information to digest, a single viewing just won't do.