Sometimes we need a little reminder as to how far we’ve come in regards to race relations and also that there is still a long road to go to achieve full equality. The Civil Rights movement in the United States was one of the most important achievements for the country during the 20th century. The advances made, in part due to the legal battles fought by the NAACP, shaped the country and its inhabitants.
George Stevens Jr., who wrote and directed this film, was the main man behind the 1991 television mini-series. Thirty-seven years after the famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision this film was presented to the public. Racial segregation in schools in the United States became a thing of the past after this monumental decision. Though this is the focal point of the film it also covers a myriad of other related subjects. Keep your attention focused and you’ll learn a lot about the United States in the 1950s.
In 1950 in a small town in South Carolina black children had their own school to attend, but for some even getting there was next to impossible. Unlike the white children attending schools the blacks did not get bused in and as a result several had to walk 5 miles each way just to attend. This occurred despite the fact that in the American Constitution it stated that each citizen would get equal access. Blacks paid taxes and did not receive equal funding in their schools.
Realizing that offering an education was not enough that it had to be truly accessible, Reverend J.A. Delaine (Ed Hall) approached the NAACP for some backing when it became apparent that black schools were never going to get equal funding just by asking for it. The NAACP sends New York lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Sidney Poitier – In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) to ask the residents of Clarendon County, South Carolina to back the fight to end racial segregation in schools.
Because they are mostly just tenant farmers or employed by whites, the blacks, who do want equality, are less than enthusiastic about rocking the boat in regards to racial segregation in the schools. They are afraid of reprisals and the fact that they need their jobs to survive. Despite his compelling arguments Marshall returns to New York City without the requisite 20 signatures he needs to file the suit.
Realizing it is important enough an issue to risk everything; Reverend Delaine does the foot work and convinces over 60 residents to sign the suit. This begins a long and combative legal case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite having good intentions behind it this film does have its flaws. One is that the script and the way the story is told are rather predictable and unadventurous. This is somewhat covered up by the strong acting of the cast. This is especially true of the solemn and powerful performance by Mr. Poitier. He brings the necessary gravitas to his role. The way he presents the character of Thurgood Marshall you can see how he became the first black Supreme Court judge later on. It also should be noted that this was Burt Lancaster’s (From Here to Eternity, Judgment at Nuremberg) last role. He portrayed opposing counsel, John W. Davis.
What George Stevens Jr. does best is acknowledge that this is not a simple issue. Rather the complexities and moral debates over segregation in schools are enough to make anyone’s head spin. Stevens Jr. tries to spend time on each of the issues related to the main one without making it too dense. While this is in no way a perfect film and at times plods on, it should be of interest to anyone who has an interest in the history of race relations in the United States.
-The CBS News Special “See It Now: A Study of Two Cities” Hosted by Edward R. Murrow