Making the Grades
In 1940's America, it's considered impossible to operate on the heart. It's also taboo to treat colored people as equals. But whether by fate or divine intervention, both of these beliefs are about to be challenged.
Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), is young, black, and out of work. Trained as a carpenter, the aspiring man has dreams of becoming a doctor. In order to earn enough money to go to school, he takes a job at a medical laboratory, which consists mostly of cleaning out the research animals' kennels.
One day while mopping the floor, he takes a textbook off an office shelf and begins to read. His interest catches the attention of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman). With a curiosity akin to wondering what tricks your pet is capable of performing, the wealthy, white professional offers Vivien a few duties as a lab assistant.
Thus begins a most unlikely partnership. At first Dr. Blalock behaves like the master. Things change however when he berates the underling with profanities (including the sexual expletive) and Vivien threatens to quit. Suddenly recognizing the value of the eager employee's steady hands, jack-of-all-trades experience, and uncommon intelligence, the physician promises to treat him with a little more respect.
Meanwhile, Vivien realizes he's been given an incredible opportunity to play a part in opening new frontiers in the medical field. His appreciation increases after the financial institution where he has deposited his life savings collapses, taking with it all his hopes for an education and degree of his own.
As their research receives international acclaim, Dr. Blalock is offered a prestigious position at the John Hopkins Hospital. While he insists on bringing Vivien with him, Baltimore's colder climate towards African -Americans makes this move anything but a promotion for the bright assistant and his struggling family. Yet his passion for their work never dims, especially as they undertake a new project. Pairing up with Dr. Helen Taussig (Mary Stuart), they set out to discover a treatment for "blue babies," a condition caused by a congenital heart defect that always ends in the infant's death.
As we watch the team throw conventional wisdom to the wind, this made-for-TV movie becomes a study in pride and prejudice. The ambitious and esteemed Dr. Blalock is met with ridicule as his colleagues deem his methods radical and unorthodox. Used to being invisible to the academics, Vivien finds a small group of young doctors who are awed by his experimental approach. Although the two men have developed a great deal of interdependency and trust, there are still some things the surgeon will not share with his subordinate--and some things the not-so-humble-as-he-appears staff member is having trouble forgiving.
For parents, the only moments for pause in this excellent production may be Dr. Blalock's salty language, a slightly negative attitude toward God and a religious leader, as well as the portrayal of the main characters drinking and smoking. Those who are squeamish or opposed to the use of animals as test subjects may also have concerns about the depiction of surgical procedures. Never gory, these very clinical re-enactments are handled reverently, and present a strong case for the important contributions made by the dogs that sacrifice their lives. (Amongst the DVD extras is a slideshow featuring a painting of Anna the dog, commissioned as a tribute to the primary research specimen used by this team.)
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the dedication and determination of these pioneers of cardiac surgery. Dispelling the myth that the heart cannot be touched, saving countless lives, and learning to look beyond skin color, Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas changed the practice of medicine in such a miraculous way, it is almost like Something the Lord Made.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Something The Lord Made.
Although Dr. Blalock’s desire to leave his mark on medicine sometimes extends to arrogance, how does Vivien’s less obvious pride manifest itself? How does the teachers’ strike Vivien’s brother is engaged in help the under-appreciated lab assistant find balance between his employer’s attitude and his passion for his job?
Vivien Thomas was unable to go to medical school. How did that missed opportunity affect his career? What do you learn about the importance of an education and the value of hard work from his life story?
In the face of criticism from his peers, Dr. Blalock declares, “Where you see risks, I see opportunities.” How did this point of view help him to achieve success where others saw only failure? What qualities did Vivien possess that helped him accomplish all that he did?
Brief biographical sketches for Blalock and Thomas can be found at these links: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/partners/legacy/l_colleagues_blalock.html http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/partners/legacy/l_colleagues_thomas.html