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"American Experience" Simple Justice (1993)

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2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:

A turning point in American History

Author: Steven Gaynor from Arden Hills, MN
5 July 2004

It sounds to me like the last speech the actor playing Marshall gives to the court is dubbed by Morgan Freeman.

All in all the movie well portrayed the courageous decision the court made regarding the most important issue. While there were turbulent reactions to this ruling that continue to this very day, we in America can heart that we were able to resolve this in a court in a civilized way rather than by war and death. Still, fifty years later we have a way to go to really achieve equality and also realize the most important truth from this film: The one most important function of state and local government is to educate the children.

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4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:

Instructive and intelligent TV movie.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
5 July 2004

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Boy, was I glad this movie didn't stick the viewer's nose into the evils of segregation, as if nobody had ever heard of segregation before. It doesn't do that, though, because it doesn't have to. The writers have attributed a certain alertness to the audience and a decent sense of morality. They could easily have gone the Abbey Mann route and preached at us and pounded us over the head with our innately evil qualities, based on the color of white skin. I am happy too that, at the end, Thurgood Marshall remarks of the decision that he is "happy, but not grateful." Simple justice has been done. What a chance that scene would have been for the writers to pump it up with racial hype. "We won this battle, now we need to win the war." Or, "Unless everyone changes, this country is doomed." Or, "This is just the beginning. We'll be fighting this war as long as racism exists." You get the picture.

This isn't a clear-cut morality tale but a thoughtful examination of how our complicated system of justice works. Some of the judges are portrayed as racists but many of them, including everyone on the Supreme Court at the time (1954), were not. Those who opposed overturning the precedent (Plessy vs. Ferguson) were concerned about issues that were strictly legal rather than moral. Just how far can the U. S. Supreme Court actually GO in dictating the social organization of individual states? And if school segregation is ruled illegal, whose job is it to enforce the law if states don't comply? Those were justifiable concerns. The eponymous Mr. Brown lived in Topeka and simply got irritated at having to see to it that his little girl arrived at the distant segregated black school safely. He wanted her to simply walk to the nearby white school. In other words, Mr. Brown wanted kids to attend their own neighborhood schools regardless of race. Paradoxically it came to pass that buses were used to schlep the white AND the black kids around to schools outside their own neighborhoods in order to achieve an equitable racial mix. That's exactly what Mr. Brown did NOT want.

So far what I've described is a kind of legalistic look at the case that's come to be known as "Brown vs. The Board of Education." And that's what it is. There are few gripping dramatic moments. Heart attacks take place offscreen. Two wives (Felix Frankfurter's and Thurgood Marshall's) have prominent roles, and for good reason. But there are no hearbreaking romances and no violence. All for the good, in my opinion, when you're dealing with such a momentous legal and political issue. Diana Scarwid has a small part too, as an expert in psychology, but is rather wooden in the part. I don't know why. She's been an extraordinary actress in earlier roles. I wish we'd seen her on the screen more often.

Speaking of acting, it's all quite good. A racist judge talks with a lisp and has a face like a red-tailed hawk, but he's the only actor who seems stereotyped. Peter James as Thurgood Marshall is adequate. (Like Marshall, many of the people portrayed in this movie are real persons, including Kenneth Clark, a well-known psychologist.) Andre Braugher gives a magnetic performance. He's the guy in, what is it?, "Homicide"?, the TV series. It's not his first superb performance on screen. You can't take your eyes off the guy when he's present. He brings a bit of extra juice to the role without resorting to shameless scene stealing stunts like Lee Marvin used. Pat Hingle is always reliable and, when given the chance, can be much more than that.

The script gives the African-American actors a chance to show weakness and make mistakes. Now THAT'S equality for you! Marshall himself stumbles twice and embarrasses himself while addressing the justices. As he remarks to his wife, he would have been thrown out of law school for that "bumbling, idiotic performance." George Grizzard does a fine job as Marshall's opposite number. He's always likable. Samuel Jackson has a cameo.

But the script as a whole is admirable. It's not just one scene but all of them taken collectively. Here's an example of what I'm getting at. The conventional way of following a social movement through the courts is to give the opposition just enough on-screen time to present dumb arguments, and to give the protagonists plenty of time to refute them. But in this instance, the opposition's arguments, as given by Grizzard, provoke thought, not simple anger. I'm not that familiar with Kenneth Clark's work but I spent many years doing research in the behavioral sciences and the way his studies are presented here, they are methodologically weak. With just a little bit of persuasion, maybe not even enough for the investigator to be aware of it himself, you can get kids to do and say pretty much what you want, as the interrogators belatedly discovered after the insanity of those pre-school molestation cases ten or fifteen years ago. And then, on top of that, Marshall and the others are making the case that segregation promotes self hatred and that's why, when asked which doll was the "bad doll," so many black kids picked the black doll. But Grizzard points out that only 40-some percent of the Southern black kids responded that way, while 70-some percent of Northern black kids, who had never experienced school segregation, made that same choice. So how does the evidence from Clark's own studies support the idea that school segregation leads to low self esteem? Well, it doesn't. The important point is not that Clark was completely wrong and that therefore segregation is good. Nobody believed that. The important point is that the movie allows Grizzard enough time to PRESENT this contradictory evidence. Our PC world needs much more even-handedness like that. The best way to fight one-sided views of the world is by unmasking the truth and making it public, not to organize an antithetical one-sided view.

You won't find yourself weeping during this movie, but you'll almost certainly find your mind engaged.

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