Sunday, February 08, 2009

Shine Your Light On The World

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

Tomorrow may never come
For you or me.

Life is not promised.
Tomorrow may never show up
For you or me.

Life is not promised.
I ain’t no perfect man

I’m trying to do the best that I can
With what it is I have.
-Mos Def, Umi Says

Mos Def recorded these words in 1999, on an album called Black on Both Sides. Watching Something the Lord Made, the 2004 movie he made for HBO, I felt as if he’d written them about the character he portrayed. I had never heard of Vivien Thomas, the man who helped pioneer cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, but I couldn’t forget him after the credits rolled. He had angered me, made me laugh, and earned my tears. Mos Def is a fine actor, one who deserves more praise than he has been granted, and his performance in this picture is a master class in subtlety. He carries this film on his shoulders in a tricky role of a victim who became a hero simply by accepting, then transforming his victimization into victory.

Something the Lord Made is a character study of the working relationship between Vivien Thomas, a Black carpenter turned lab assistant, and Dr. Alfred Blalock, a Southern doctor whose great granduncle was the head of the Confederate South, Jefferson Davis. Davis’ take on the place of Black people is well documented; his great grandnephew probably shared some of those views as well, but both his ego and his desire to change the world through medicine were too big to deny the special gifts he found in Thomas.

We first meet Thomas in Nashville, Tennessee, just as he is being let go from his job as a carpenter. The teenaged Thomas is given his last check and told “you do good work.” As a result of his layoff, Thomas is introduced to Dr. Blalock, a doctor at Vanderbilt looking for an assistant/janitor. Blalock sizes up Thomas and dismissively says he hopes he can handle the menial tasks “that your predecessors could not.” As played by Alan Rickman, one of my favorite actors, Blalock is arrogant and egotistical, facets Rickman commendably plays throughout the film without remorse. Blalock is also observant—when he sees Thomas reading through some of his medical books, he knows he has no ordinary janitor. After grilling Thomas, and testing out his useful carpenter hands, Blalock has something else for Thomas to do besides scrubbing floors and cleaning up the dog shit left by the lab’s test subjects.

Jesus was a carpenter, but He was a lot more willing to deal with the abuse hurled at Him. After a breakthrough of sorts with his new lab assistant, Blalock verbally assaults Thomas for not recording their lab discussion. When Thomas mentions that he was unaware of that duty, Blalock hurls more abuse. Rather than take this abuse, Thomas quits. Blalock senses the error of his ways when he sees the comprehensive notes Thomas has kept. Quickly, he follows Thomas out.

“I was not raised to take that type of talk,” says Mos Def in a line reading that is simultaneously polite yet forceful. We know that Blacks weren’t allowed to express anger during this period, lest it cost them, and Def grants the line the unspoken weight of his societal placement without robbing it of its power. Blalock’s desire to “do something great” far outweighs any desire to be tyrannical toward his assistant; he promises to hold his temper and asks Thomas to return. As he notes later in the film, no other assistant handled his requests and his research better than Thomas did; they were on the same wavelength.

Fast forward a decade. Dr. Blalock has moved on to Johns Hopkins and taken Thomas with him. Vivien’s wife, Clara (Gabrielle Union, underplaying nicely) and daughter have come with him. Over the past 12 years, Blalock has come to rely on Thomas’ expertise in building tools (a holdover from his carpentry days) and sharing ideas. At Johns Hopkins, the duo take on a request from Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson), a prim looking pediatric doctor with a hearing aid. She hopes to help the “blue babies” she cares for in her ward, babies whose heart problems are the cause of their blue pallor. No one has operated on the heart successfully, notes Dr. Blalock, who must have never heard of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. This type of challenge strokes both Blalock’s ego and his desire to do something to change the world, the latter he acquired after a near death experience with tuberculosis. Dr. Taussig assigns a test case, the baby daughter of a sailor and a young woman.

At home, both men have wives and daughters with whom to deal. Clara Thomas hates Baltimore, a place where, unlike Nashville, there are few Blacks in prominent positions like doctors. She is also none too pleased by Thomas’ place in the hospital; he’s Dr. Blalock’s lab assistant but is still listed (and paid) as a janitor. Blalock’s wife Mary has, in his constant absences due to hospital work, become some kind of handywoman, fixing items around the house and driving an ambulance for people wounded in World War II. Mary tells Blalock that his daughter “wants to grow up to be a patient, so she can see her father.”

Both men have tough, loving women waiting for them at home, but the similarities end there. Dr. Blalock can host lavish parties at his residence, and Vivien has to work them as a waiter to help pay his rent. This despite his growing contributions to Blalock’s work. Thomas has been tasked with a lot of the research and testing while Blalock tends to patients and to teaching.

Director Joseph Sargeant doesn’t dwell too much on the evils of the period. Watch how the characters react, by rote, to situations. Early in the film, Thomas and the friend who told him about Blalock’s custodial position, encounter several White people walking in their path. Mechanically, both stop talking, move out of the way and acknowledge the presence of the passing Whites. Later, as Thomas walks down the hallway of Johns Hopkins, the background is filled with shocked Whites. One nurse puts down the phone to gawk at this Black man with a White man’s lab jacket on his back. When one doctor demands that Thomas, who has been tasked with cleaning out his boss’ new lab, bring him some coffee and a donut, Thomas politely explains there has been a misunderstanding and hands the doctor back his money. The doctor storms off pissed off, but there are no further repercussions. Blalock casually mentions how angry the doctor was, but he’s amused by the same level of pride he bore witness to at Vanderbilt.

Some of the White doctors get used to Thomas working on experiments, but none are aware of how good he is with sutures and ingenuity. While working on a test subject canine, a resident arrives looking for Blalock. When he sees Thomas’ work, which Thomas performs without even looking at the parts he is manipulating (Thomas compares it to walking through one’s own home in the dark), he is so impressed that the young doctor in training blurts out “I would like to work with you someday.” Thomas thanks him, and after the resident leaves, Thomas makes a noise Def uses several times as a sort of shorthand to convey bemusement, something like “huhmph.” He can’t walk through the front door at Johns Hopkins, but he can inspire the workers within its walls.

Blalock is so self-centered that he occasionally doesn’t see an issue until he’s been jarred by a break in routine. When Thomas walks off the job due to a dispute over pay (he’s still making that janitor’s salary despite his lab tech work), Blalock is forced to act to get him more pay, especially after he notices that Thomas’ last experiment has created in a dog the blue baby symptoms. Now that there’s a test case, he can start working on how to cure the ailment.

The other doctors at Johns Hopkins think Blalock is crazy for attempting to operate on a heart. The film shows how religion, among other things, contributes to the ignorance regarding heart surgery. “You can’t mess with God’s work,” warns the sailor’s priest. “Perhaps God is trying to kill this girl,” says Blalock. “I am not.” Attitude like that has his fellow docs licking their lips in anticipation of failure. But, with Thomas’ skilled hands and ideas, and Blalock’s direction, failure isn’t on the menu. After investigating Thomas’ arterial shunt, Blalock responds “it’s like something the Lord made.” Rickman’s sincere delivery robs the line of all its potential cheesiness; it’s a beautiful moment in the film.

After a setback, the duo find a way to improve on their original experiment. Now they are ready to focus on the little girl. Thomas gives Blalock everything he needs to perform the procedure, except the confidence to pull it off. Rickman plays Blalock’s uncertainty as a foreign emotion. Standing in the operating room, hands up and awaiting his surgical gloves, Rickman lets panic freeze his body, his eyes asking “what the fuck is this?” Then his ego returns, and rules be damned, he’s going to have Vivien Thomas in that operating room as the experienced voice in his ear. With Thomas’ gentle guidance, Blalock performs the surgery. It’s a success.

Blalock and the doctors who assisted him are honored, and he winds up on the cover of Life magazine touting, by himself, the techniques and equipment he and Thomas created. As the photographer takes pictures of Blalock, Sergeant populates the background with Mos Def. The expression on his face is one of mixed feelings. He knows he can’t be in the shot but it looks as if he wishes Blalock would call out and invite him over in the same manner he sought him before that fateful surgery.

At a party thrown in Blalock’s honor, Thomas slips in as one of the hired staff and listens as Blalock thanks everyone but him. It’s too much for Vivien to take, and he quits. After a failed attempt to enter college based on his 15 years of experience at Johns Hopkins, Thomas starts selling antacids to doctors door to door to make ends meet. But he is miserable, and Clara forces him to acknowledge it. He wants to be in the lab, regardless of whether he is credited with the work.

Watching the sequence where Thomas returns to work for Blalock, I felt tears stinging my eyes. These were not tears of joy; I was livid. Anger welled up in me—how dare he return? He’s being denied the credit he deserves, and he can’t even walk through the front door of a hospital where he helped save the lives of babies whose parents would spit in his eye, or worse, if they saw him on the street. I had internalized Thomas’ struggle, and putting myself in his shoes in that office became too much for me. I would not have been able to do it—my pride would not let me—and Thomas’ explanation of how much he loves the work just confused my emotions. Def is wholly convincing, and he and Rickman give the scene a quiet power, but I choked on Thomas’ reasoning. This emotion snuck me like a prizefighter, hitting me in the gut and putting me down. I was mad at myself because I just couldn’t do what Thomas does. My brain understood why, and it admired this man’s strength. But my heart could not acquiesce.

Time passes, and Vivien Thomas becomes a teacher to numerous doctors, people who have degrees he does not possess yet seek him out for his work with Blalock and others. His mentor has become ill, requiring surgery. As he leaves the hospital as an outpatient, he tries once more to get Thomas to come with him, this time to Columbia University. Thomas says he appreciates the offer, but he likes where he is.

Dr. Blalock, sensing death may be coming back to collect on the debt allowing him to survive TB, attempts to convey to Thomas how he feels about their work together:

They say you haven't lived unless you have a lot to regret. I regret... I have some regrets. But I think we should remember not what we lost, but what we've done. We saved a lot [of lives], didn’t we?

We did,” says Thomas.

Suddenly, I fully realized why Thomas went back to that lab. He was able to put the greater good ahead of his own glory. Thomas’ pride in his work trumped everything. Even if nobody knew, HE knew, and Blalock did too. Rickman plays this scene pitch-perfect, and Def underplays his reaction, raising his eyebrow slightly at Rickman’s confession but otherwise keeping his emotions to himself. After refusing Thomas’ help for the first time in the movie, Blalock hobbles out of the hospital as we hear Helen tell Vivien in voiceover that he has passed away.

The film’s last scene is Def’s best. After being honored with an honorary doctorate at Johns Hopkins, a portrait of his likeness is put on the wall at the front of the medical building, joining Blalock’s and Johns Hopkins’. Earlier in the film, Thomas is thrown out of the building as Blalock walks him through the front door, pointing out the portraits. Now he not only can enter through the front, but his likeness will greet everyone who does. Not bad for a guy with no formal medical training. Def’s reaction to the picture is silence; he lets his face reveal a mixture of emotions. The intercom rings out, calling for Dr. Vivien Thomas to report. Def looks up at the portrait one more time. The noise he utters as he walks away speaks volumes.


In the chorus of Umi Says, Mos Def sings:

My umi says shine your light on the world.
Shine your light for the world to see.

Something the Lord Made does its part to shine that light on two pioneers, Drs. Thomas and Blalock, and assisting it are the fine performances by Rickman and Def. They are both fantastic. Backing them up are Masterson, who drops little hints of identification with Def’s character--she being a half deaf woman doctor in a place where women doctors are almost as scarce as Black doctors; Sedgwick, who has some fun with her Rosie the Riveter type role, and Union as the rock in Vivien’s life. Charles S. Dutton has a few good scenes as well, playing Vivien’s dad, a man whose idea of pride permeates every fiber of his son’s being.

As Mos Def looked up at his portrait, my eyes welled up again, this time with the intended use for tears. I was touched beyond measure, and I felt the film earned that emotion honestly. For its trouble, Something the Lord Made received the Best TV film Emmy that year. HBO makes great TV movies, and this is one of their best.

The real Drs. Blalock and Thomas


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

A great, moving, personal piece about a great, moving, personal film. Thanks for writing this, Odie.

odienator said...

Thanks, Matt. I wanted to do this one last year, but I ran out of time. I am glad for the opportunity to do it justice this year.

Fantastic Forrest said...

What a terrific review! I just showed my class this film, and there were more than a few tears at the end. I'm not ashamed to admit I had to struggle to gain composure when it was time to begin the post-movie discussion.

I'll be sending my students to your site for this. I hope they look around further. You have some great writing here.

odienator said...

Fantastic Forrest, thanks very much for your comment. I had planned on doing this last year but ran out of days. This is a great movie, directed by a veteran TV movie director and elevated by the excellent two leads. As you read, I had a very emotional response to the picture the first time I saw it, and every subsequent time as well.

Also thanks for passing this along to your students. What do you teach?

Fantastic Forrest said...

This semester, I'm doing a class on Social Justice Issues in Popular Culture Films. I'm exposing my learners to the wonderful world of blogs as a source of information and inspiration. :-) You will be the lead for Sunday's post at Holly Forrest Teaches.

I know, it's an exciting moment in anyone's life.

odienator said...

Believe it or not, I am honored and humbled to be an educational resource. I come from a family of teachers, and training is part of my programming job. I also tutor college-level math, writing and computer science classes. I'm big on education and research!

When I started these BHM pieces, I said the project was (for better or worse) the kind of class material I wanted in school during February. It's nice to see it being put to good use. Thank you again.

Fantastic Forrest said...

No, thank YOU. I didn't mean to be flippant. You have created a fantastic resource. I only wish I had greater occasion to use it. The course I'm teaching is actually only a tiny fraction of what I'd like to present. I'm hoping at some point in the future to entice a college to let me do an entire semester focused on such subjects.

In the meantime, I intend to make my friends who teach at the high school level aware of your work. Don't be surprised to be hearing from some of them! Your writing offers a wonderful combination of thoughtfulness and humour. It is a real gift.

Julian Pipolo said...

This was great, Odie. Brilliant review. I'm a big admirer. Nice to see how Rickman deftly played what could have felt like an irredeemable character. This was also a lovely reminder to revisit Mos Def's brilliant Black on Both Sides.