Making history at Hopkins

HBO film to debut at Senator Theatre


May 18, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and Miss Evers' Boys (1997), HBO has chronicled the African-American experience better than anyone else in the made-for-TV movie business. And now comes Something the Lord Made, a new HBO film about a white surgeon and a black lab technician who together pioneered heart surgery in the 1940s at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Beyond one significant inaccuracy, the film that premieres locally tonight at the Senator Theatre is made of the same stuff as the very best HBO movies. Its forceful and nuanced performances are driven by a narrative as rich in texture as a novel and as fast and true in movement as a short story.

Director Joseph Sargent creates the same vibrant sense of time and place for this Baltimore story as he did when evoking Alabama in the 1930s for the Emmy-Award-winning Miss Evers' Boys. The result is history brought to life; the past granted breath and made to touch the heart.

The film opens in Nashville in 1930 with a scene in which a young black carpenter named Vivien Thomas (Mos Def) puts the finishing touches on an intricate design in the hardwood floor of a great mansion. Just as he delicately places the last block of wood, a foreman comes along to tell him that he has been laid off. It's the Great Depression, and as a young black man without a family, he's one of the first to feel the bite.

But a relative finds him a job at Nashville's Vanderbilt University cleaning kennels and caring for the dogs used in medical experiments by Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), a surgeon and medical researcher. As unlikely as it may seem given the racial strictures of the Jim Crow South, something clicks between the two, and by 1943, when Blalock is invited to be head of surgery at Hopkins, he demands that the school hire Thomas as his lab technician.

When Blalock asks his Hopkins colleagues to propose areas of research for his new administration, Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson) urges him to investigate a congenital heart defect that deprives babies of oxygen, turns them blue and soon leads to their death. At the time, heart surgery was simply not done, but that didn't stop Blalock - and Thomas - from tackling the problem.

Over the years, the story of Blalock and Thomas has become the stuff of legend. The movie depicts them jubilantly arriving at Hopkins, only to be stopped by a security guard in the hospital lobby. If Thomas wants to begin his new job, he must use the rear entrance. This sort of humiliation is repeated in other scenes as the doctors treat Thomas as servant rather professional teammate.

If the producers were seeking merely to create a satisfying but simplistic story about persistence triumphing over prejudice, they might have portrayed Thomas and Blalock as the good guys - and left it at that.

But reality was not so neat. Thomas is shown waiting on tables at a party at Blalock's home to supplement his salary from Hopkins: Though he was teaching surgical techniques and designing the very medical instruments and machines that would make heart surgery a reality, the university paid him as a maintenance worker.

In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Thomas is shown standing on a box behind Blalock as the surgeon performs the first successful blue-baby operation. He is looking over Blalock's shoulder and guiding him through the surgery that would revolutionize the field and make headlines around the world. Unfortunately, it would be more than 30 years before Thomas would get the full credit for his role in that work.

How Blalock, who knew (and took advantage) of Thomas' intelligence and accomplishments, not only could allow his assistant to be treated badly by others but treat him with indifference and disdain himself, is explored in depth by the film. That willingness to depict ambiguity in racial relations ultimately saves Something the Lord Made. Rickman seals the deal with a warts-and-all reading of Blalock that leaves viewers hating his arrogance while admiring what he can do as a surgeon.

In the end, though, this is Thomas' story. And, even though Mos Def's solidly understated performance is overshadowed by Rickman's, the movie's most stirring scene occurs when Hopkins bestows upon Thomas an honorary doctor of medicine degree as family, friends and members of the university's medical community applaud his triumph.

But Hopkins never gave Thomas an honorary doctor of medicine degree; what he received in 1976 was actually an honorary doctor of law degree, according to Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman. Hopkins stopped giving out honorary doctorates in medicine in 1972, and since has given out honorary doctorates only in law or humane letters, O'Shea said.

The difference matters. In a film based upon reality, especially a bit of history as moving as Thomas' story, even a relatively minor mistake can create doubters out of viewers. (Producer Robert Cort was traveling yesterday, and did not respond to a request for clarification. )

Whether the inaccuracy was a mistake or a deliberate misrepresentation - to grant perfect closure to a story about a real man who desperately wanted to be a medical doctor - HBO's producers need to fix it before the film airs nationally May 30. Something the Lord Made is too fine a film to be diminished by such docu-drama imprecision.


What: Something the Lord Made.

When: Tonight at 7:30 (invitation only).

Where: The Senator Theatre.

In brief: A powerful film from HBO about race and medical research at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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