Powerful, haunting and artfully mounted, “Miss Evers’ Boys” is a docudrama of uncommon quality and clarity. The acting is exceptional, the characters vivid, the presentation balanced. Original films for television rarely aim so high as does this HBO NYC production.
Yet at the risk of coming down unfairly on a project so unflinchingly noble, the film drags along at an ox-cart clip too often for its own good. It takes its sweet time getting where it’s going, stopping the storyline cold with a succession of bluesy dance sequences that are glorious but redundant and even disruptive.Nit-picking? Probably. “Miss Evers’ Boys” is hardly supposed to resemble “Twister,” after all. And cinematographically, it is a revelation, with director of photography Donald M. Morgan lending the production a strikingly dingy, washed-out look that blends perfectly with the piece’s bleak sensibility.
The story as told here centers on nurse Eunice Evers (a dynamic, layered performance from Alfre Woodard). Evers went to work at Alabama’s Tuskegee Hospital in 1932 to assist a certain Dr. Brodus (brilliant work from Joe Morton) in caring for poor black men (sharecroppers mostly) who have been stricken with syphilis.
Enter Dr. Douglas (Craig Sheffer), a white doctor who brings with him a fully funded program to treat syphilis at the hospital, offering free treatment to any man who tests positive for the disease.
A few months pass before Brodus travels to Washington to meet with Douglas and a government panel of doctors who tell him the funding for treatment has dried up. However, money is available for a study of the syphilitic African-American men. The catch: They can receive no medical treatment initially as a way to establish whether syphilis affects blacks and whites differently.
Brodus initially is outraged, but acquiesces in the belief the study will disprove the racist notion of physiological inferiority in blacks. Evers also reluctantly follows along, lying to the men while giving them only vitamins, tonics and liniment rubs.
But as the months turn into years, it becomes clear that the afflicted men will never receive treatment. Only with their deaths is the study of how the disease runs its course made complete and viable.
Walter Bernstein’s arduous, potent teleplay (based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by David Feldshuh) switches gears during its second hour to become an examination of Evers’ gut-wrenching moral ambiguity in sticking around to help perpetrate this ghastly fraud over 40 years.
Woodard movingly conveys the conflict weighing down Evers’ guilt-riddled soul, giving a profound resonance to the disturbing ethical questions raised by her dedication in the name of lending the men comfort and a form of loving (if deliberately ineffectual) care.
Laurence Fishburne turns in a dynamic and understated performance as Caleb Humphries, Evers’ suitor and an early participant in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, whose health improves after shots of penicillin — the same penicillin available to the untreated men.
Obba Babatunde is superb as Willie Johnson, a dancer who takes part in the study, while Ossie Davis (as Evers’ father) and E.G. Marshall (as a Senate committee chairman running a 1972 hearing into the Tuskegee atrocity) lend top-drawer support. Joe Sargent’s direction is self-assured.
Despite the oft-slovenly pacing, the overall tone and tenor of “Miss Evers’ Boys” is one of subtle brilliance, bolstered by an exquisitely detailed period sheen that screams excellence.
After it’s over, you sit disbelieving that such an inhumane, insidious experiment designed to reduce black men to the level of laboratory animals could ever have been conducted in the United States of America — much less gone undetected until 25 years ago.
It went far beyond mere institutional racism. It was pure evil.