Everyone says that heart surgery is impossible. One doctor, a woman, thinks otherwise, and she challenges Dr. Alfred Blalock, a gifted surgeon, to think on it. He leaves for Johns Hopkins to undertake the trials, and he brings along Vivien Thomas to assist. Thomas is Blalock’s African-American lab technician. Thomas has all the makings of a great doctor but never had the opportunity. Blalock sees his brilliance and uses him to run the whole lab while conducting important research, but Thomas remains poorly paid, a Class-3 employee, like the maintenance crew, who are of course largely black.
It’s Thomas’s hands and tool-making that lead to the big breakthrough that will save blue babies and invent bypass surgery. Blalock defies custom and Jim Crow to bring Thomas into the surgery with him, but when credit is being doled out, Thomas is passed over.
Of course, in 1941, it’s not just professional but also personal prejudice that must be conquered. Theirs is an unlikely partnership and a difficult friendship – one that will be tested when social pressure doesn’t care how many lives are saved if it’s black hands doing the saving. Alan Rickman and Yasiin Bey (credited as Mos Def) star in the lead roles, and their chemistry is appropriately strained and tetchy. Arrogance, subservience, and expectations make such an interesting dynamic (for those of us watching anyway – I’m assuming much less so for those living it). This movie made me miss Rickman and admire Bey for how restrained and humble he could be in a role that must have been difficult.
This is a true story that was suppressed for many many years and obviously we owe a huge debt to this partnership and its fruit. They invented cardiac surgery. If you know anyone who’s had heart surgery, it was only possible because of these two. If this movie is at times a little slow, it’s also quite compelling, and you’ll find yourselves pulling for so many facets at once.