on December 7, 2004
Alan Rickman and Mos Def give superb performances in this wonderfully-written film about the triumph of intelligence and creativity over the effects of racial prejudice.
"Something The Lord Made" is the real-life story of Dr. Alfred Blalock and technician (later Dr.) Vivian Thomas, both of whom pioneered open-heart surgery in America in the mid-twentieth century.
Rickman, as Blalock, gives a flawless, charismatic portrayal of an egotistical surgeon who gains nobility of spirit while he defies (and yet is simultaneously confined by) the customs of his society. Rickman's performance is all the more impressive because he is British, and Blalock was an American from the south; nevertheless, Rickman's southern accent is natural and effortless.
Rickman brings likability and humanity to what could otherwise be an unsympathetic character; and this core humanity gives "Something The Lord Made" a depth not often seen in tales of bigotry within American society. Too often, tales of this sort delineate the bad guys from the good guys in an almost cartoonish fashion, but Rickman's Blalock is both good and bad, reflecting more accurately the reality of the times in which both characters lived.
Mos Def gives a subtle, moving and sympathetic performance as Vivian Thomas, a gifted man who is caught in the trap of prejudice and the expectations of an unenlighted society. The film clearly demonstrates that Thomas is the intellectual peer of Blalock; it is society and circumstance that for years robs Thomas of the practical opportunity to become Blalock's actual peer in terms of status. Def gives us the portrait of a man who chooses patience over reaction; through him, we feel outrage at the denial of the respect due Thomas, time and again.
The writing in this film is low-key and highly effective. Because American society has in some ways changed since the mid-twentieth century setting of this film, younger viewers may not understand the actions and choices made by Blalock and Thomas, both within this film and within real life. Nevertheless, "Something The Lord Made" gives an extremely uplifting and surprisingly accurate portrayal of life as it really existed in those times, and should be appreciated both as an historical and enlightening film.
For once, they got it right, offering a glimpse into the drama/suspsense of the early days in heart surgery, as well as giving a revealing look at two pioneering figures in the field - one well-known (the white doctor) and the other an unsung hero (his afro-american lab assitant). Neither saccharine or unrealistic, the film offers an unflinching look at both the genius and unbridled ambition of Dr. Blalock while countering it with the steadfast loyalty and dedication of his assistant, Vivien Taylor, destined to live in the doctor's shadow for much of his life. This is one I am adding to my personal collection. It is simply that outstanding.
For me the worst bigots are not the ones who carry shotguns and engage in lynchings. Underneath their hatred is a fear born from knowing in the marrow of their bones that they are not as good as the people they are oppressing and that on an equal playing field they will be the ones who end up on the bottom. I am always outraged more by those bigots whose racism is embodied in what they say and how they say it, as well as by the gestures they demand to keep Jim Crow in place despite the evidence of their eyes and the assumption what they see actually gets into their brains. In "Something the Lord Made," there is a moment where a white doctor at the most prestigious hospital in the country makes a point of leaving his office and go into a laboratory just to have a black man fetch food and drink. I look at such a man and wonder what he is thinking, knowing that whatever it is, it is just not right.
Racism is the subtext of "Something the Lord Made," an HBO movie that dramatizes the story first told in the "American Experience" documentary "Partners of the Heart." This is the story of Dr. Alfred Blalock, who pioneered cardiac surgery in 1944 when he and Dr. Helen Taussig developed the Blalock-Taussig technique, a surgical procedure that repaired the faulty blood vessel in the hearts of babies that was causing a lack of oxygen. This fatal birth defect turned babies a light shade of blue, resulting in their being commonly called "blue babies" (Fallot's tetralogy). The story of "Something the Lord Made" is about not only this pioneering medical work, but also the relationship between Blalock and Vivien Thomas, a lab technician. Blalock (Alan Rickman) is white and Thomas is black (Mos Def), which is why racism keeps rearing its head throughout the tale.
Blalock is a brilliant but brash physician doing pioneering work on the treatment of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock (Blalock demonstrated that surgical shock resulted primarily from the loss of blood, and therefore encouraged the use of plasma or whole-blood transfusions as treatment). Thomas has been saving his money to go to medical school but has been working as a carpenter's assistant when he gets a job sweeping and cleaning Blalock's laboratory and dog kennels (experimental techniques are developed working on dogs, once a condition comparable to what is found in humans is created). But the doctor quickly discovers that Thomas has a quick and inventive mind and the Great Depression ends Thomas' dream of going to medical school. What starts off as a relationship between master and servant (or at least boss and employee), becomes that of teacher and student. By the time Blalock moves to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and takes Thomas with him, the two have become joined at the brain. There is a delightful scene where Blalock is kicking around ideas with his new colleagues and Thomas keeps making comments and bouncing ideas off the doctor until they are involved in an intense discussion and everybody is watching dumbfounded.
Director Joseph Sargent ("Colossus: The Forbin Project," "Miss Evers' Boys") has two major stories to tell here. One is the medical story of the invention of cardiac surgery and the other is the human story of whether Vivien Thomas would ever be recognized for his invaluable assistance in that effort. Thomas does the work of a lab technician, but is paid as a janitor. He has to use the back entrance at Johns Hopkins when he comes to work and students flock to see the great Dr. Blalock assisting Thomas when operating on a dog. Even after they achieve their greatest success, there are colleagues who laugh at Blalock because he needed Thomas' help to do the impossible, their bigotry making it impossible for them to realize doing the impossible is no mean feat.
There are social victories along the way. Not so much that Blalock is finally persuaded to do something about his invaluable assistant's salary as the young doctors who come up to Thomas and ask if they can work with him in their spare time (although their accents are invariably not of the south). But Blalock is getting his picture on the cover of "Life" and the only one in the operating theater not in the group photographs are Thomas and the nurse, and there is an element of sadness that it was over a decade after Blalock died that Thomas received his overdue recognition. Was Blalock's problem that he was egotistical or that the man was so focused? The film suggests it was the latter and that the work was what mattered. Indeed, the most memorable scene in this 2004 film is when we see with our own eyes the miracle that Blalock, Thomas, Taussig, and these others wrought in 1944.
"Something the Lord Made" won the 2004 Emmy for outstanding made-for-TV movie, due in part to the marvelously understated performances by Rickman and Def. The DVD includes audio commentary by Sargent, writer Peter Silverman, and producers Robert W. Cort and Eric Hetzel. The featurette on the making of the film and historical slide show both get into some of the true story, which is worth pursuing on its own. The frail child on whom the operation was first performed died months later during a second operation. But the film does make it clear that she was very ill and a high-risk patient to begin with, who was doomed to die, and what happened at Johns Hopkins in 1944 did prove the surgical procedure worked well enough to end up saving the lives of tens of thousands of children. So there are more aspects of this fascinating story that have been left untold that you can certainly find out more about.
on June 27, 2005
I love this movie for two reasons. The first because, I myself had a right sided Blalock-Taussig shunt operation performed on me back in July of 1972, when I was about 16 months old. This allowed me the strength and oxygen needed to stick around until Nov. of 1976, when a complete repair of my tetralogy of Fallot complex was carried out.
Seeing the history and background of this operation hit me, as you may imagine, on a very personal and emotional level. It's also a little humbling to know that, basically, ALL open-heart surgery performed today, saving so many lives, is related to the surgery designed fix the condition; I came into this world with. Thereby, breaking the convention of not messing with the heart.
Thing is, I had thought this movie had a great impact on my emotions, which it did. But, that was nothing compared to watching this movie with my mother. Whenever the focus was on blue babies in particular, she about fell apart. While she was interested in the truths and history portrayed in this film, she was unable to complete watching the film. The names, the symptoms and the babies, just rang to true and real for her to handle.
So, I guess I would caution parents of a child that has had to go through this that, you may want to think twice about watching this movie. I would however, recommend that if said child is old enough to understand, you should buy them a copy of this movie. I think I will help them understand what a wonderful gift they have been given.
The second reason is because, of the historical value of this film. They way people treated each other then was just so... While better today, I still think there is a ways to go. I think watching this, can show the current generations were we have come from, and hopefully, help them understand there is still a ways to go. A little ambitious maybe, but then again, I should not be around today, to be typing these words either.
Finally, I would like to thank Mos Def and Alan Rickman for there stunning performances in this film. Awesome, just awesome.
Vivien Thomas would have been on his way to medical school if not for the stock market crash of 1929 wiping out the Thomas' finances. A skilled carpenter trained by his father, Vivien took work in the research lab of surgeon Alfred Blalock.
The partnership was magic. Blalock had been a disappointment of sorts. Although he graduated from Johns Hopkins, he didn't get his desired residency in surgery there, and after three years he left Baltimore to become the first surgery resident at Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Blalock had ideas about treatment of shock due to trauma - the now common sense plan of blood transfusion - and his research led to the saving of untold lives in World War II (and beyond). As a result of his new fame he was offered the position of Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins. He brought along Vivien Thomas.
The achievements of Dr. Blalock are suitably shown in this movie, but the film wisely focuses on Thomas and on their relationship. Without a single day as a medical student, Thomas uses his innate intelligence and abilities so well that he becomes the lab extension of Blalock's research. While Blalock is off being Chief of Surgery, Thomas is in the lab, devising new surgical techniques on dogs. The movie by-passes the technique Blalock and Thomas devised for treatment of coarctation of the aorta.
Dr. Helen Taussig is a pediatric cardiologist at Hopkins who cares for those unfortunate children born with "blue baby syndrome" - Tetrology of Fallot - with a severely narrowed pulmonary artery (carrying blood to the lungs from the heart) and a hole in the wall between the right and left ventricles of the heart (allowing already poorly oxygenated blood to bypass the body). She approaches Blalock and the Blalock-Thomas team go to work trying to reproduce the condition in the laboratory so that they can devise a means to treat it. (Historical records show that it could have been any one of the three who came up with the idea).
So while Vivien Thomas is doing the bulk of the lab work that will eventually bring Dr. Blalock world-wide fame, he is being paid as a "class 3" employee (the pay scale for custodial workers) at Hopkins because he is black. He isn't even allowed to enter his building through the front door.
The film doesn't gloss over the fact that racism holds Thomas in his place when his own intelligence and abilities have made him in every way Blalock's colleague. It also doesn't gloss over the fact that Blalock did little to correct things for his colleague.
Alan Rickman portrays Blalock and Mos Def gives an astonishing performance as Thomas. Real suspense is generated in the scenes surrounding the first "blue baby" operation. Heart surgery had never been performed before, and failure would be both a professional setback, but also mean death for the child.
Seeing the final scenes, where Vivien Thomas finally gets some of his due credit for his extraordinary work (20 years after Blalock and Taussig have their fame), is a heart-warming thing. The world is a richer place for the contributions of these Doctors.
This is a movie I am itching to show to the medical students I teach. The story of the first heart surgery (also the first pediatric heart surgery, just to make the accomplishment even more difficult) is put into context. I won't summarize the movie other than to say that issues of race, class, and gender were very important in this pioneering operation and led to the neglect of one of the key persons, Vivian Thomas, played with subtlety and skill by Mos Def. Dr. Blalock, played by the consistently excellent Alan Rickman, is portrayed neither as a do-good crusader or a black-hatted parasite but with the ambiguity and mental conflicts inherent in such an intelligent and ambitious character. A long-overdue recognition of Thomas' contributions ends the film and it would seem hackneyed were it not strongly based on true events.
Must-see for medical students, medical educators, and anyone interested in how the socially privileged were gradually forced to acknowledge the contributions of talented people who had been excluded from the mainstream of medical education.
on February 10, 2005
As a former Open Heart OR nurse having worked with the likes of Micheal E DeBakey and working next door to the hospital of Denton Cooley, MD my knowledge of this portion of the Blalock/Taussig Shunt procedure was lacking.
I found this film to be wonderfully multifaceted. I watched and listened in awe as this beautifuly told story of Vivian Thomas, who I didn't know of, and the famous Drs. Blalock and Taussig evolves. It is compassionate in the treatment of African-Amrericans of the time and also the egoistic white surgeons and doctor surrounding the ground breaking reseach on heart surgery. Further research by me indicates that the story is as close to historically correct while still maintaining a bit of the drama. Purhaps I was more deeply impacted by the story of Mr Thomas, knowning all too well the status of the ancillary indviduals who surround these famous people. He was a powerful figure, but to a point was only interested in his research and allowed the Doctors to gleen the accolades.
A much watch for all but especially those interested in medical history. Many latex-gloved thumbs up.
on May 16, 2007
When I read the description of Something The Lord Made, I thought to myself - there is just no conceivable way that this is going to be interesting. However, it did have a lot going for it. It was directed by Joseph Sargent, who also directed the brilliant, A Lesson Before Dying. It starred Alan Rickman who is so good he could make an IKEA commercial look like it was directed by Ingmar Bergman. It paired Rickman with Mos Def, who has remarkable screen presence. (I first noticed Mos Def in another exceptional film, The Woodsman, which, coincidentally or not, also featured Kyra Sedgwick.) So, despite the promise of (in)action confined exclusively to a medical lab, I forged ahead.
I'm so glad I did. This is one of those minor gems you might easily miss. Make sure to pay attention to the score, which is outstanding. It's way too easy to sketch this movie out as an anti-racism diatribe, that's way too facile. As with A Lesson Before Dying, racism is simply a fact, not a larger-than-life villain. This, of course, makes the depiction that much more powerful. We don't see the pain of racism courtesy of gassy soliloquies; we feel the pain of it as we read Mos Def's face watching Dr. Blalock receive his award at Baltimore's Biltmore Hotel.
Why beat a dead parrot? We know the Biltmore is segregated. Vivien - Def - can only gain admittance by posing as a bellhop. We know that Blalock is a vain and arrogant surgeon (quelle surprise!) only too willing to bask in glory that would never have been his without Vivien's remarkable contributions. And yes, we know that the racist culture surrounding these men makes it easy for Blalock to distance himself from Vivien when it suits him.
This context of racism is woven right into our flag; it's part of the culture, hardly newsworthy enough to merit a film. The engine that's really driving Something The Lord Made is not racism at all; it's the subtle, complex relationship joining these very different men who share a passion for medicine. The interplay between Vivien's self-effacing, quiet dignity and Blalock's braggadocio is pure gold, these two are so right for each other; they balance one another in a way that is touching at the very least.
Certainly there were moments when I wanted to explain to the supercilious twits at Hopkins that Vivien was the genius behind the wheel and they should be lavishing praise on him. At times it was sad, and Vivien's stoicism makes it sadder. But the movie never takes cheap shots; Def and Rickman offer marvelously reserved performances, thereby increasing the impact. Ultimately I was left with an overwhelmingly positive sense of how people can, and often do, achieve miraculous things despite the mountains of debris and bizarre baggage they've been saddled with. A wonderful film.
on October 10, 2004
Based on the true story of Dr. Alfred Blalock, a surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his assistant Vivien Thomas. (Alan Rickman & Mos Def.) Surounded by prejudice, discrimination & racism; the two men learned to respect, and to ultimately benefit from their differences for the good of all. They developed the heart surgery shunt technique to prolong life for 'blue babies.' Although that's what the plot is about, it's not what the story is...
I shouldn't have liked this - not a fan of HBO 'original' movies, nor rap stars turned actors. Great movies are made by studios or independents, not networks. Great actors come from the world of acting; not singing, photography or sports. But the description sounded interesting, so I gave it a chance... WOW.
Excellent story, very fine acting, authentic looking cinematography, compelling and well-developed screenplay; and a real zing for your heartstrings. The particular subject matter is interesting enough, but the real story is the human relationships, both within/among the characters & American society. As we travailed through the growing pains of integration and striving for equality whether by race, gender or social class distinction; the story of how we coped and progressed has seldom been depicted with such artistic clarity.
Also, a real Believe In Yourself, Do What You Love, Don't Give Up kind of story. Not a perfect film, might seem a bit slow-paced at times for some, but very engrossing. Along with the lead actors who portrayed their characters wonderfully, Kyra Sedgwick also turned in another fine appearance. Watching it unfold it was easy to become involved, by the end I was very pleasantly surprised to be reminded that the brilliant young leading man was Mos Def. I certainly didn't expect such a performance, but gladly admit he's most definitely a fine actor. Glad to see it'll be available on DVD, definitely a MUST-SEE.
on March 15, 2006
I can't say enough about this wonderful film. I am outraged that the movie studios wanted nothing to do with this film. So much the better for HBO I guess. The story is about the doctors who pioneered the technics for heart surgery. It was thought back then that you could not operate on the heart. Dr. Blalock thought otherwise. Vivien Thomas was a carpenters son and was very skilled at his trade. After losing his job he finds a job cleaning the lab for Dr. Blalock who was working on shock syndrome. He used dogs for his research. Blalock soon discovered that Thomas had skills beyond that of a carpenter.
It is said that Alan Rickman who played Dr. Blalock in the movie balked at saying the line "this is like Something the Lord made." He thought is was corny having to say the title of the movie as dialogue. I beg to differ. When you think of the line within the context of Vivien Thomas, a truer word was never spoken. Indeed, Thomas was something the Lord made. God made Vivien Thomas a doctor even though he never went to medical school. You've seen that happen before. A pianist who can't read music, a painter who never took art lessons, a preacher who never went to seminary school, etc.
Mos Def (he should buy himself a new name now) plays Thomas and he is brilliant in this role. I don't know if he'll ever do anything as wonderful as this again. He is a natural. Seems that the Lord made him an actor:) Def has great instincts and great timing. I was highly impressed. If you watch the film closely, you will notice that he changes his body language and voice 3 times as the character ages. Mos Def seems to play a spot on image of Thomas who played things close to the vest and was not prone to outbursts or fits of temper even when he became angry.
You must view this film. It's heart breaking to watch Blalock and the other doctors get their picture taken for a magazine while Thomas stands in the background with no recognition at all even though Blalock called him into the O.R. to talk him through the procedure.
I won't tell you what happens at the end but you'll be happy with the end results. Please, please, please don't miss this one. I must commend HBO. It seems as though they are the only company that produces african american themed films on a regular basis. Maybe we should ask Showtime and Cinemax what' up with that!