Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

[FILM] HBO's "Something That the Lord Made" (Diversity's Great Strengths)

Expand Messages
  • madchinaman
    Recalling a friendship that led to greatness The bond between a white surgeon and a black lab technician is recounted in Something the Lord Made on HBO. By
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30, 2004
    • 0 Attachment
      Recalling a friendship that led to greatness
      The bond between a white surgeon and a black lab technician is
      recounted in "Something the Lord Made" on HBO.
      By John Crook

      Working together despite the strictures of Jim Crow racism, a white
      surgeon and a black lab technician make revolutionary strides in
      cardiac surgery techniques at Johns Hopkins Hospital in "Something
      the Lord Made," a moving historical drama premiering Sunday on HBO.

      If viewers experience a sense of déjà vu as the movie unfolds,
      that's probably because this extraordinary story also was explored
      in a PBS "American Experience" documentary called "Partners of the
      Heart" in February 2003.

      As the HBO drama opens in Nashville, 19-year-old Vivien Thomas
      (actor/rapper Mos Def), a bright member of that city's thriving
      black middle class, sees his dreams of medical school dashed as his
      savings are wiped out by the Depression.

      In a desperately tight economy, Thomas is forced to accept a low-
      paying janitorial job at Vanderbilt University's medical school,
      where his precocious medical insights and aptitude soon catch the
      attention of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), an ambitious white
      surgeon not known for suffering fools gladly.

      Over the next few years, Blalock becomes so impressed with Thomas'
      resourcefulness that the two men become an unofficial team, and in
      1941, when Blalock is offered a coveted position at Baltimore's
      Johns Hopkins facility, he accepts only on the proviso that Thomas
      will move to Baltimore as well.

      If Thomas and his wife, Clara (Gabrielle Union), had hoped a move
      farther north would decrease the racism they encountered, they were
      disappointed. If anything, Thomas faced an even more openly
      dismissive attitude within the hallowed halls of Johns Hopkins,
      where he was not allowed to enter through the same door as Blalock.

      Somehow, however, the soft-spoken Thomas found the resolve and the
      courage to bear up under the bigotry, and he and Blalock wound up
      creating a surgical technique to save the lives of "blue babies,"
      assisted by a colleague, Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart Masterson).

      Thomas "struck me as someone who had a very defined idea of himself
      that couldn't be disturbed by his surroundings," Def, 30, says. "I
      believe he remained true to that. He had a great deal of integrity,
      a great deal of pride, and he was also a man of quiet resolve. He
      was just very attractive as a historical figure and as a character
      to portray."

      As the other half of this exceptional team, Rickman manages a
      creditable Southern accent and a subtly multifaceted portrait of
      Blalock, a combination of genuine compassion, a self-confidence
      bordering on arrogance and a willingness to recognize excellence
      that crosses social, cultural and racial boundaries.

      Even more strikingly, however, the British-born Rickman captures the
      more casual kind of racism practiced by many white American
      professionals in the mid-20th century, men who turned a blind eye to
      the segregated water fountains, restrooms, building entrances and
      passenger seating unless these restrictions crossed over into their
      own world.

      "It's an amazingly complicated story and extraordinary
      relationship," Rickman says, "and it's like basic food to an actor
      to play something that rich, that complicated."

      Rickman and Def spent time with technical advisor Alex Haller to
      learn how to believably simulate surgical techniques of the period.

      "We had to know what we were doing in all of the operations, and
      there was this whole series of [them]," Rickman says. "You can't be
      holding a scalpel when you should be holding a clamp."

      Likewise, director Joseph Sargent demonstrates a deft hand of his
      own in the way he films and paces this mostly low-key double
      character study. In addition to sterling work from his two stars, he
      also draws fine performances from Masterson as a third valued member
      of this experimental team, as well as Charles S. Dutton as Vivien's
      demanding father and Kyra Sedgwick, who brings substance and texture
      to the underwritten role of Mary Blalock, Alfred's wife.

      There are no car chases, no explosions, no acts of extreme violence,
      but this engrossing tale of a special and very human friendship will
      hold an audience spellbound right through its poignant conclusion.

      John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.

      "Something the Lord Made" airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday on HBO. The
      network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


      Honoring a match made in medicine
      HBO's "Something the Lord Made" dramatizes the lives of two men who
      teamed, despite prejudice, to develop an important heart surgery.
      By Robert Lloyd, Times Staff Writer


      Alan Rickman...Alfred Blalock
      Mos Def...Vivien Thomas
      Gabrielle Union...Clara Thomas
      Kyra Sedgwick...Mary Blalock
      Mary Stuart Masterson...Helen Taussig

      Executive producers, Robert W. Cort, David Madden, Eric Hetzel.
      Director, Joseph Sargent.
      Writer, Peter Silverman.


      "Something the Lord Made" is a splendid docudramatic retelling of
      the intertwined lives and careers of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan
      Rickman) and his longtime technician and research assistant, Vivien
      Thomas (Mos Def), and their pioneering work in heart surgery in the
      1930s and '40s. The film pulls off an inspirational hat trick: It's
      at once the story of a medical breakthrough (celebrating its 60th
      anniversary this year), of honor belatedly bestowed and of a
      friendship that defied prejudicial convention. Sick babies are
      cured, overdue awards bestowed, deep feelings shyly expressed. You
      may weep.

      It is one of the points of the film (premiering Sunday at 9 on HBO)
      that Thomas, as a black man in a segregated society, was only
      belatedly recognized for his contributions, but you have quite
      possibly not heard of Dr. Blalock, either, or of the tetralogy of
      Fallot, the condition whose groundbreaking treatment much of this
      film concerns. (You may know it by its nickname, "blue baby"
      syndrome — a congenital deformation of the heart that robs the lungs
      of oxygen.) This is to the movie's advantage, it being a
      biopictorial rule of thumb that the less the viewer knows the better.

      Thomas was a 19-year-old Nashville carpenter whose dreams of medical
      school disappeared into the black hole of the Depression; he found
      himself as an odd-jobs lab assistant at Vanderbilt University
      Hospital under Blalock, who quickly recognized his talent and
      initiative and trained him as a surgical technician.

      For more than 30 years, they remained professionally inseparable;
      when Blalock became head of surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore,
      it was on the condition that Thomas come with him. Thomas ran
      experiments, invented new surgical equipment and procedures, and,
      finally, in the "blue baby" operations, stood by Blalock's shoulder
      while he operated, giving him advice and guidance.

      The film doesn't tell a story so much as paint a picture, but it is
      dramatic and even exciting, and the protagonists bump up against
      history in ways that illuminate both their characters and the
      society that made them (and which to a great, though not superhuman
      extent, they rose above or managed to ignore).

      It's a time that seems both near and far, not only in matters of
      race relations, but in medical practice — heart surgery was thought
      impossible before the '40s. "We are going to challenge this ancient
      doctrinal myth," Blalock tells his colleagues.

      And while the film doesn't specifically draw parallels between
      scientific and social progress, they are there for you to consider.
      (Thomas' achievements were acknowledged within his lifetime,
      fortunately, with an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins, where he
      became an instructor in surgery and where his portrait now hangs
      along with Blalock's.)

      Directed with a light hand by Joseph Sargent, who also made HBO's "A
      Lesson Before Dying" and "Miss Evers' Boys" — Sargent seems to be
      the network's go-to guy for African American period pieces — the
      film is a lesson in modulated tone.

      Though it packs a lot into two hours, within each scene the pacing
      is quiet and slow, so that it's enough for a character to raise his
      voice or widen an eye or move a little faster to create drama. When
      Blalock says, "Helen, I want to see all your diagnostic notes," with
      the music gently swelling below, it feels like John Wayne strapping
      on the six guns.

      There is no fancy camerawork, no pace-quickening edits; the score is
      mostly well-behaved. While the film is not entirely free of
      obvious "movie moments," they are relatively few, or executed with
      natural carelessness. The facts are compelling enough; they don't
      need help.

      The facts, in fact, have already spoken for themselves: The script
      (by Peter Silverman, of "Hill Street Blues" and "Harlan County War")
      pretty much follows the lines of last year's PBS
      documentary "Partners of the Heart," whose director, Andrea Kalin,
      was a consultant on the present film.

      Though events have been telescoped or switched in time for dramatic
      effect and narrative arc, nothing of substance has been invented.
      (Though Dr. Helen Taussig, who first suggested a surgical response
      to the tetralogy of Fallot, and is here played by Mary Stuart
      Masterson with a funny haircut and a jumbo antique hearing aid,
      perhaps does not quite get as much credit as she should.)

      Rickman plays Georgia native Blalock with a touch of the Southern
      aristocrat, balancing the doctor's hauteur and temper with passages
      of sympathy or delight. (There is a lovely throwaway moment when he
      takes the hose from a respirator Thomas has just built and blows air
      over his own face.) As Thomas, Mos Def — best known as a recording
      artist, but an actor since his teens, including a regular stint
      on "The Cosby Mysteries" — doesn't possess Rickman's expressive
      palette, but he has a quiet authority and more than holds his own.

      Kyra Sedgwick and Gabrielle Union play Mrs. Blalock and Mrs. Thomas;
      Charles Dutton is hugely patriarchal as Vivien's father.

      There are scenes involving experimentation on animals, sensitive
      viewers may want to know, and a little bit of blood.


      Cable Try
      HBO's Something the Lord Made is the latest made-for-cable movie to
      showcase great performances in a mediocre film.
      By Dana Stevens

      Something the Lord Made, a new made-for-TV movie that premieres
      Sunday night on HBO (9 p.m. ET), is further proof that HBO is fast
      becoming what the theater used to be for movie actors—a place to
      hone their chops, or to take a break from the rigors of feature-film
      production and promotion, or to take risks that might not be
      available to them in the Hollywood mainstream, where movies must
      pander to ever vaster audiences to make back their producers'

      In recent years, A-list actors like Uma Thurman, Laurence Fishburne,
      Emma Thompson, Jessica Lange, and Don Cheadle have appeared in made-
      for-HBO projects, and if their gushing testimony in interviews is to
      be believed, their experiences with the network have been the
      highlights of their working lives: intimate, creative, and

      For viewers, this is good news: If you're willing to spring for the
      premium cable bill, you can catch top-notch performances by world-
      class actors without ever leaving your home. The bad news is that
      those performances often seem strangely adrift inside movies that
      aren't very good.

      Many made-for-HBO movies (last year's sublime Angels in America
      being one notable exception) have a certain recognizable feeling
      about them, a high-minded, after-school-special tone that's
      exemplified by the title of the 1999 Emmy-winning A Lesson Before
      Dying. (In my case, it was more of a lesson before falling asleep in
      front of the TV, but whatever.) They tend to be "problem" films that
      treat subjects of social import and are often either based on true-
      life stories or adapted from theatrical productions, with varying
      degrees of earnest creakiness.

      Miss Evers' Boys (1997) took on the racial scandal of the Tuskegee
      medical experiments, The Laramie Project (2002) revisited the murder
      of gay college student Matthew Shepard, and last year's Normal told
      the story of a rural, middle-aged family man who underwent a sex-
      change operation.

      Like these films, Something the Lord Made, by TV director Joseph
      Sargent (who won Emmys for both Miss Evers' Boys and A Lesson Before
      Dying), takes its inspiration from a truly jaw-dropping real-life
      story. This is the story of Vivien Thomas (played by Mos Def), a
      young black carpenter from the South who, despite having no formal
      medical education, helped to develop the tools and techniques that
      led to the first surgery ever performed on a human heart, which took
      place at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1944. Alfred Blalock (Alan
      Rickman) is the powerful white surgeon who takes Thomas on, first as
      a custodian, then as a lab assistant, and finally as a right-hand
      man in the operating room. Thomas has the deft hands and surgical
      intuition to carry out the procedures that Blalock devises in the
      lab and on the chalkboard.

      Of course, this odd division of labor provides ample opportunity for
      the exploration of racial discrimination in the medical profession,
      as well as in the world at large. Long after he has become
      indispensable to Blalock as a lab technician and surgical assistant,
      Thomas discovers that he has been paid at the level of a custodial
      worker while he picked up extra cash by bartending at Blalock's

      When Blalock (whose oversight in promoting his assistant appears to
      arise less from racism than from sheer cluelessness) intercedes to
      have Thomas' salary increased to a level appropriate to his rank,
      Thomas' wife, Clara (Gabrielle Union), says icily, "Thank you,
      Doctor, for promoting him to what he's already doing."

      But to its credit, the film never pigeonholes Blalock as an
      unregenerate racist or Thomas as a passive victim; rather, it shows
      how the insidious force of institutional racism keeps both master
      and servant locked into their respective roles.

      As the ambitious, volatile Blalock, simultaneously in awe of Thomas'
      gifts and carelessly exploitive of his labor, Rickman is
      magisterial. And Mos Def, as Vivien Thomas, is a revelation. He's an
      actor who plays his cards close to his chest, his soft voice and
      still body seeming to conceal a roiling inner life.

      A late scene, in which Thomas must disguise himself as a waiter to
      sneak into a banquet celebrating the medical breakthrough he helped
      make possible, stands out as a heartbreaker, as Mos Def's face, seen
      through a plant behind which he hides, runs through an arpeggio of
      subtle expressions: the anticipation of being mentioned in Blalock's
      speech; the slow realization it's not going to happen; then a tiny
      flicker of pure grief, immediately succeeded by a barely perceptible
      hardening as he realizes he's been betrayed.

      Yet in spite of its fascinating subject matter and bravura acting,
      much of this movie feels surprisingly shapeless, its rhythms mushy
      and dull. Like many pictures based on true life, Something the Lord
      Made seems strangely impatient with its own story, as if eager to
      check off the boxes and get it over with. The plot spans 30 years,
      of which vast stretches disappear without the benefit of any
      narrative device—characters suddenly show up in wheelchairs or
      toting toddlers, 10 years having passed since their last appearance.
      The passage of world events like World War II and the social unrest
      of the late '60s is telegraphed broadly through montages of archival
      stock footage.

      But the real problem with Something the Lord Made may be that
      surgical innovations, however technically astonishing and socially
      useful, are just not that interesting to watch. The procedure the
      two men work on together involves a series of practice operations on
      dogs, in an attempt to duplicate and fix the heart defect that
      causes cyanotic, or "blue," babies.

      As a result, much of the film centers around Blalock and Thomas
      trying to create cyanotic dogs in the lab, leading to innumerable
      close-ups of shaved furry tummies and countless opportunities for
      lines like, "Viv, you did it! The dog's gums are blue!" or my
      favorite, "This dog is only faintly blue at best."

      No film whose emotional climax involves watching an infant's face
      slowly turn from blue to pink as inspirational music swells in the
      background can fail to tug occasionally at the heartstrings, but
      Something the Lord Made misses more often than it hits. Rickman and
      Def, like the exacting craftsmen they play, may have put in
      countless hours at the HBO operating table, but this dog is only
      faintly blue at best.

      Dana Stevens, aka Liz Penn, lives in New York and writes on film and
      culture for the High Sign.

      Still from Something the Lord Made by Bob Greene © HBO


      Something the Lord Made
      By Barry Garron

      Bottom line: Stories of medical drama and social injustice intersect
      in a moving manner. (9-11 p.m. Sunday, May 30, HBO)

      It's hard to tell which is the most remarkable aspect of this
      measured and eminently watchable period drama: 1) the gut-wrenching
      anger it instills over the injustice of segregation, 2) the brutal
      honesty with which it portrays a collegiality that can never be more
      than that between two passionate medical researchers, 3) the
      suspenseful tale of the advances that made heart surgery possible or
      4) that this film didn't get scheduled in the Black History Month
      ghetto of February.

      Alan Rickman and Mos Def co-star in a movie that is a lesson in both
      medical history and civil rights, though "lesson" is surely not the
      right word. HBO's "Something the Lord Made" has plenty to say about
      racial injustice in the 1930s and '40s, but it never gets preachy.
      It doesn't have to because it's all so plainly written on the faces
      of its stars.

      Mos Def plays Vivien Thomas, the son of a carpenter and an
      accomplished carpenter in his own right. Fired because of hard
      economic times, he takes a job cleaning floors and dog pens for Dr.
      Alfred Blalock (Rickman), a self-proclaimed medical research genius
      who, despite his ego and overbearing nature, is an absolute bulldog
      at finding answers to vexing problems. It takes little time for
      Blalock to realize that Thomas has an unusually keen mind and a
      dexterity to rival the finest surgeon. For his part, Thomas is
      fascinated by the world of medicine and the chanceto do cutting-edge

      Within the lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, with few
      exceptions, Blalock shows a degree of deference to his assistant and
      intellectual equal. Outside the lab, where prejudice and segregation
      are entrenched, Blalock is no crusader for equality, challenging
      only the rules that would prevent Thomas from serving as his
      assistant. This sets up some truly heart-rending scenes during which
      Blalock unjustly revels in the credit that properly ought to have
      been shared with Thomas.

      There is a rich supporting cast but not much for them to do. Whether
      it's Kyra Sedgwick playing Blalock's supportive wife or Gabrielle
      Union as Thomas' devoted wife or Charles S. Dutton as Thomas' proud
      father, their scenes seem obligatory and their dialogue uninspired.
      Where this teleplay by Peter Silverman and Robert Caswell shines are
      the scenes between Blalock and Thomas, which, fortunately, make up
      most of the film. Rickman and Mos Def take full advantage of these
      opportunities to create characters that live on long after the final
      credits roll.

      Veteran director Joseph Sargent feels for his characters and the
      degree to which society has forced them into roles that diminish
      their potential, both as professionals and human beings. In addition
      to smart camera angles, Sargent is particularly adept at getting so
      much of the story told through expressions and movement.

      Cort/Madden Prods. in association with HBO Films

      Executive producers: Robert W. Cort, David Madden, Eric Hetzel
      Producers: Michael Drake, Julian Krainin
      Co-producer: Irving Sorkin
      Director: Joseph Sargent
      Teleplay: Peter Silverman, Robert Caswell
      Story: Peter Silverman
      Consultants: Andrea Kalin, Koco Eaton, J. Alex Haller Jr.
      Director of photography: Donald M. Morgan
      Production designer: Vincent Peranio
      Editor: Michael Brown
      Composer: Christopher Young
      Set decorator: Susan Kessel
      Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
      Casting: Lyn Kressel, Pat Moran

      Dr. Alfred Blalock: Alan Rickman
      Vivien Thomas: Mos Def
      Mary Blalock: Kyra Sedgwick
      Clara Flanders-Thomas: Gabrielle Union
      William Thomas: Charles S. Dutton
      Dr. Helen Taussig: Mary Stuart Masterson
      Mrs. Saxon: Merritt Weaver
      Harold Thomas: Clayton LeBouef
      Lodel Williams: Cliff McMullen


      'Something' salutes unlikely medical duo
      By Ann Oldenburg, USA TODAY

      An ambitious, eccentric white surgeon and a gifted black carpenter
      turned lab technician: This unlikely pair made history with their
      pioneering heart surgery, a story that has always been known among

      Now the Depression-era portrait of Alfred Blalock, the white,
      wealthy head of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and Vivien Thomas, the
      quiet, hardworking carpenter who dreamed of becoming a doctor, airs
      as a movie called Something the Lord Made on HBO (Sunday, 9 p.m.
      ET/PT), with Alan Rickman and Mos Def.

      "It's a fantastic story and one that's true," says Koco Eaton, 43,
      the real-life nephew of Thomas and a consultant on the
      film. "Nothing really needed to be added or made up. It's about
      extraordinary times and two men who overcame a lot and accomplished
      a lot."

      The two doctors not only had to defy racial prejudices of the time,
      but also broke rules by operating on "blue babies," infants
      suffering from a congenital heart defect that slowly suffocated

      Eaton couldn't be happier with Die Hard and Harry Potter veteran
      Rickman, who "just draws you in," he says. "Dr. Blalock was a
      complicated man, and Rickman does a great job of showing the

      As for rap musician and actor Def, Eaton says his family "wanted to
      make sure that my uncle was portrayed in the dignified way in which
      he lived his life. Mos was an excellent guardian of my uncle's

      Thomas' widow is a "very private person," Eaton says. "If she had
      her druthers, all of this would simply go away. None of this
      attention will bring (him) back."

      But for Eaton, now an orthopedic surgeon in St. Petersburg, Fla., "I
      never knew how much influence he had over the course of modern
      medicine. It's sort of like finding out your uncle is Michael
      Jordan, but you never watched a basketball game and never had any
      idea of how great he was."


      Agonies of a Great Surgeon Who Never Was

      omething the Lord Made," which will have its premiere on HBO on
      Sunday, is supposed to be an uplifting tear-jerker about two men who
      defy racism to accomplish miracles. Fortunately, it's much, much
      better than that.

      As Alan Rickman plays him, Dr. Alfred Blalock, who pioneered open-
      heart surgery, initially for the treatment of "blue babies," is an
      ambiguous hero. And he's not just cosmetically ambiguous, as so many
      movie heroes are, their bad qualities (messiness, a taste for
      Champagne) being little more than charm.

      He's simply not charming. Mr. Rickman's Blalock has a venal air, an
      oleaginous, even faintly lecherous manner and a cloying self-regard
      that appears to blind him at times to the very existence of other
      people. Mr. Rickman deserves praise for forfeiting the opportunity
      to play an attractive Southern gentleman; he does not muck up his
      performance with cuteness.

      By contrast, his partner in surgery, Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), is
      cute: charming, kind and physically agile, with a knack for
      dignified deference of the kind that possibly characterized model
      black men during segregation days, when much of this movie is set.

      But Thomas is also depressed, almost fatally. Blalock hires him in
      the Depression-era South, first as a janitor and then as a lab
      technician, for which Thomas is evidently supposed to be grateful.
      Grateful? He tirelessly earns every promotion with technical work
      and medical insights that go largely uncredited. He submits to Jim
      Crow, refraining from using the hospital's front door. And he's paid
      virtually nothing, "$16 a week for 16 hours a day," as he says,
      working after hours at Blalock's whites-only cocktail parties to
      make ends meet.

      It's grinding racism; it's unjust. But the movie underscores the
      real problem that torments Thomas: Why is he supposed to be
      grateful? Because Blalock doesn't run from him in horror? As
      Blalock's only interest is in rising to prominence as a surgeon, why
      imagine that anything but pure opportunism led him to exploit the
      intelligence and surgical talents of his teenage janitor?

      We need not. That's it. Blalock wanted fame, and he took on a black
      man who helped him develop his most important procedures, a surgical
      assistant who gives him instructions in the operating room. For not
      going to ludicrous lengths to conceal Thomas's achievements — though
      he didn't trumpet them, either — he's not due gratitude.

      All that would be clear if it weren't for one catch: Thomas loves
      the work. He loves — and Mos Def pulls this off — the euphoria of
      medical discovery. He loves, just as Blalock does, the surgeon's
      high. And, without a medical degree or the time or money to pursue
      one, he can get that high only by Blalock's side.

      A cornier movie would twist this logic to let Thomas have both,
      somehow: his freedom from patronage and his accomplishments. But
      here he has to choose. Can he forfeit his pride, even his humanity,
      for the joy of good work?

      "Something the Lord Made" is based on a true story, and it
      faithfully tracks the rise of both Blalock and Thomas. But along the
      way, the weepy movie raises true moral stakes, the ones in good
      fiction, and they make the tears the film works to inspire feel more


      HBO, Sunday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

      Directed by Joseph Sargent; Robert W. Cort, David Madden and Eric
      Hetzel, executive producers; Michael Drake and Julian Krainin,
      producers; written by Peter Silverman; Andrea Kalin, Dr. Koco Eaton
      and Dr. J. Alex Haller Jr., consultants.

      WITH: Alan Rickman (Dr. Blalock), Mos Def (Vivien Thomas), Kyra
      Sedgwick (Mary Blalock), Gabrielle Union (Clara Thomas), Charles S.
      Dutton (William Thomas) and Mary Stuart Masterson (Dr. Taussig).
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.