The finest made-for-television film that I have seen in 2009 has to be the HBO production Something the Lord Made (2004). It is the dramatic story of two men—one a wealthy white chief surgeon, the other a poor black lab technician from Tennessee. Together, as a remarkable and inseparable team, they achieved a monumental medical breakthrough. One, the white surgeon, received international accolade when he became the first surgeon to operate on the human heart. (The title comes from the response of some clergy, who argued that the heart should never be operated on since it had an unusual place as the seat of the soul.) The second man in the story, an African-American with nothing but a high school diploma and apprentice type training as a carpenter, excelled all expectations to become the vital assistant to the famous Dr. Blalock. (Thomas and Blalock met in Nashville when Blalock began his career at Vanderbilt University Medical School.) But Vivien Thomas learned again and again the painful lessons of racism and unequal opportunity that existed in the 1940s and 50s.
Working in 1940s Baltimore at the prestigious John Hopkins University Medical School on an unprecedented technique for performing heart surgery on "blue babies," Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) and lab tech Vivien Thomas (Mos Def) formed a truly impressive team. When Thomas walked out, realizing he would never gain the respect that he so wanted (and the income he needed for his young family), Blalock was never the same. After searching for a place to gain respect and opportunity Thomas returned to Johns Hopkins to work with Blalock for the rest of his life. (Blalock died in 1964.) Thomas learned surgical techniques by instinct and sheer ability, through working on lab animals as a research technician. In time he actually became a contributing surgeon, without title, degree or license.
The medical advance these two men worked on was astounding as they sought to solve problems that are now seen as easily solved in most major hospitals in America. In fact, over 1.75 million heart surgeries are performed in America every year. Some of you who read this blog have experienced longevity, and even new quality of life, precisely because of these two amazing pioneers. My Webmaster, Sean McCallum, received a new heart nearly two decades ago (as a young teen) and is, thankfully, very well to this day. When most of us think of heart surgery and the pioneers we think of Dr. Michael DeBakey (1908–2008) or Dr. Denton Cooley (b. 1920). I always knew them as the great pioneers of modern heart procedures. (Cooley was actually a student in the operating theater when Blalock performed his first "blue baby" surgery.)
The real history is different and much more interesting than we know. It was really Blalock and Thomas who were the pioneers in this very recent field of medicine—saving thousands of lives in the process. But social pressures threatened continually to undermine their collaboration and to tear their friendship apart. In the end they both made history and, finally, both got the credit they deserved, with Thomas’ respect and honor coming late in his life. This film tells their truly amazing story. I highly recommend it. You can get it through a library loan or on NetFlix if you are a subscriber. (Most film lovers are NetFlix users.)
Besides Alan Rickman and Mos Def the movie features Mary Stuart Masterson, Gabrielle Union, Charles Dutton and Kyra Sedgwick. It is directed by Joseph Sargent and was written by Peter Silverman and Todd Philips. It runs 110 minutes. Though a low-budget film Something the Lord Made is a superb story, again proving that great stories can be told on film without huge cash investment. Someone should learn this but I guess the all-American blockbuster is now the gold standard since it is these films that gross huge sums of money when they make it big in the popular culture.
Don’t kid yourself. Culture is not what ultimately matters in Hollywood, left or right. “Show me the money,” might be written over every production company president’s desk somewhere. Thankfully there are companies like HBO, and independent film companies that abound, that will produce such films.