It’s rare when separate dramas on consecutive nights achieve narrative continuity by tracing the same thread of U.S. social and political history.
“The Ernest Green Story"(at 7 p.m. Sunday on the Disney Channel) and “Simple Justice” (at 9 p.m. Monday on KCET-TV Channel 28 and 8 p.m. on KPBS-TV Channel 15 and KVCR-TV Channel 24) do just that. Although not faultless, both are worth watching.
Ideally, for chronological reasons, “Simple Justice” should be airing first. A departure from the usual documentary format of that luminous PBS series, “The American Experience,” it culminates with the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that barred racial segregation in public schools. The first real test of that ruling--the tumultuous 1957 integration of Little Rock’s Central High School--is dramatized in “The Ernest Green Story.”
Green was one of nine African-American students, and the only senior, who integrated Central amid angry, jeering white mobs.
TV is progressing. Once upon a time, it depicted such stories, when at all, through only white eyes, witness “Crisis at Central High,” an upstanding 1981 movie about a white teacher swept up in the Little Rock turbulence. “Simple Justice” has a more recent TV predecessor, the 1991 “Separate but Equal,” an honorable ABC drama that also centered on Thurgood Marshall’s crucial role in Brown vs. Board of Education. Marshall went on to become the Court’s first African-American justice.
Depicting what “The American Experience” host David McCullough terms “one of the great stories” of our age, “Simple Justice” gives a historical perspective many years deeper than that of the earlier ABC account, introducing Marshall (Peter Francis James) in 1930 as a Howard University student in a law school that was the only fully accredited one for African-Americans in the United States.
Marshall’s mentor--and ultimately his early collaborator in the NAACP’s crusade to erase the legal concept of “separate but equal"--is the law school’s visionary dean, Charles Houston (James Avery). Based on Richard Kluger’s book, “Simple Justice,” John Greevey’s script tracks some of the dead ends and hairpin curves along the winding legal road that these underfinanced underdogs pugnaciously follow for 20 years. It leads all the way to Topeka, Kan., where an African-American girl named Linda Brown is denied entry to her neighborhood white school. Hence, Brown vs. Board of Education.
Unfortunately, “Simple Justice” is lean on character development. Its protagonists inevitably become subservient to the issues immersing them. Yet it does movingly attach suffering human faces to its lawyerese. Director Helaine Head delivers a number of affecting scenes that expose the oxymoronic sham of “separate but equal,” including one showing black school kids huddled in their dark, cramped South Carolina classroom. Plus, she knows where to stick the needle, as in one scene showing subservient black porters silently robing and whisking off the omnipotent white Supreme Court justices who will decide the educational course of African-Americans.
“Simple Justice” is especially effective, though, in speaking legal language with a lay dialect that’s understandable. Its behind-the-scenes High Court--from the Jewish self-consciousness of Felix Frankfurter (Sam Gray) to the skilled consensus-making of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Pat Hingle)--is fascinating. And its truncated courtroom sequences don’t sacrifice intellect for energy.
Affirming that there is TV life beyond the mundane, “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” star Avery is very good as Houston, as is James as Marshall, who observes prophetically after the Supreme Court mandates school desegregation: “I’ve got a feeling that tomorrow, the real work begins.”
That tomorrow arrived with a deafening crash three years later in Little Rock when Ark. Gov. Orval Faubus, thinking of his political future, used the National Guard to bar Green and the other African-American students from entering Central High in September.
What “The Ernest Green Story” doesn’t do on Sunday is explore the political calculations influencing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decisions to respond to Faubus by occupying Central High School with federal troops, and then, abruptly, to remove those troops.
What it does do, helped by Morris Chestnut’s strong performance as Green, is personalize this nightmarish period in a way that slips you into the shoes of those frightened teen-agers who were pummeled, screamed at, taunted, harassed and otherwise abused by rednecked throngs and white students who hated them merely because their skin was black or tan.
Director Eric Laneuville can stage frothing mob scenes with the best, contrasting this shrill abnormality with the sane home environments of Green and his fellow integrators, leaving no doubt as to who are the animals.
One of them turns out to be Green’s racist physics teacher, who is determined to sabotage his only African-American student and could stop him from graduating. He and other whites here are caricatures, unfortunately, their only purpose being to move along the plot of a story that at its very best chronicles the terrifying power of hatred and ignorance.
Using hindsight, we now know that its relatively positive ending turned out to be only a blip in this nation’s enduring struggle with racism, a struggle that continues to convulse U.S. society today.