If you want to stick it to The Man, Judge Joel Pearce says you can do worse than Mos Def.
"Death's a very humbling thing to live with, day in and day out. I swore then: if I got my life back, I would do something important with it." -Blalock
Looking at movies made for television over the years, several trends emerge. Producers love hospital dramas, almost as much as they love true stories. If a story can be true, involve the medical world, and center around a civil rights issue, you can just imagine the smile on the studio executives' faces as they sign on. Because of that, I approached Something the Lord Made with hesitation. I shouldn't have. There's a reason we watch these stories time and time again, and they are stories that deserve to be told and recorded. This production has the distinct advantage of being produced by HBO, who makes television that transcends the TV-movie-of-the-week stereotypes in every way.
Facts of the Case
Vivian Thomas (Mos Def, The Italian Job), a young out of work carpenter in the 1940s, desperately wants to become a doctor. He has the intelligence, the knowledge, and the skills, but he can't afford college tuition. He gets a maintenance job with a local surgeon named Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman, Dogma), which quickly becomes a partnership when Blalock realizes how talented Vivian is. As their partnership continues, they work together to perform the first heart surgery, a procedure which could rescue the lives of "blue babies." Because of the system they work in, though, Thomas remains a poor black worker on paper, an injustice which could cost them their partnership and friendship.
It's nice to see films based on true events that get everything right. At the core of Something the Lord Made are two flawless performances that keep this story believable, touching, and entertaining. Mos Def has quiet grace as Vivian Thomas, resisting the urge to overplay his frustration and anger at the system. We see him as a skilled man who has accepted his fate away from the spotlight, using his talents to bring fame and glory to others. Alan Rickman hits all the right notes as Blalock, chewing up his scenes while knowing when to back off. He is as entertaining as always, but brings a level of humanity to this role that we rarely see from him.
These two men are supported by an excellent script. Racial tension is always present, but never overshadows the excitement and challenge of the work that Thomas and Blalock accomplish. Something the Lord Made is set against a backdrop of prejudice, and never glosses over the injustices done to men like Thomas, but it spends more energy celebrating his remarkable accomplishments. Thomas is never victimized, as so often happens in these stories. This is a story of a man who had no opportunities but did incredible things anyway. The working arrangement between Thomas and Blalock is complex and balanced, which keeps Blalock from looking like a jerk who takes credit for another man's work. This being a true story, there are few surprises over the course of the film, but it still manages to be totally suspenseful and riveting. The medical scenes are especially intense, without being too graphic.
Other television producers should take note of how this film keeps rooted in history without becoming dull. Several montage sequences remind us what else was happening at the time, but wrap quickly so we can focus attention on the story at hand. The cinematography is simple but effective, and the music is appropriate enough that it's never distracting. There are a few minor problems with the production, but they are all so small it hardly seems worth bringing them up. Alan Rickman's accent is somewhat inconsistent, and the aging of the characters is not clear enough. The montages make it clear how far much time has passed since the last scene, but at other times only vague references keep us oriented.
The technical quality of the disc is up to HBO's usual high standards. The video transfer is pristine. It looks more like a feature film than a television production, incredibly sharp with a transfer completely devoid of flaws. There is neither edge enhancement nor any compression errors. The sound transfer features clear dialogue and a strong front soundstage. Music and ambient noise are mixed into the rears, but it's done too softly at times. A heartier mix would have been more immersing.
The disc is light on special features, but does contain a good commentary with the director, scriptwriter, and two executive producers. They sense what needs to be pointed out, and informatively discuss the production process and their own exploration of the history. The short featurette is really just studio fluff for people who have not seen the film. Last up is a "making history" slideshow, which shows real images and covers some of the history behind the film. It's great to see pictures of the actual people from productions like this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why does Alan Rickman get first billing in a film about a black man who was forced out of the limelight? Mos Def has been made almost invisible on the cover, which reproduces the problem with the system that's under attack in the film. These civil rights issues are still around, and a studio that's willing to honestly tell a story as important as this one should be proud enough to give a talented actor like Mos Def top billing, along with the prominent position on the cover art.
Something the Lord Made covers familiar material, but it knocks the ball out of the park with a well crafted script, confident direction, and two wonderful performances. There are many stories about people who have risen above their circumstances to accomplish great things, but it's still important for these stories to be told and remembered—especially when they are told this well.
Vivian Thomas has spent enough time in the shadows of history. Perhaps now he will get the credit he deserves. Not guilty on all charges.
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