[FILM] HBO's "Something That the Lord Made" (Diversity's Great Strengths)
- 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
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
"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
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
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.
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 actorsa 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-
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 devicecharacters 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
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
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.
SOMETHING THE LORD MADE
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
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
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
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
SOMETHING THE LORD MADE
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).