Although modest in tone and understated in execution, this is one of those rare fact-based films so fascinating that many will be tempted to rush out to read more about it, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Buoyed by excellent lead performances, “Something the Lord Made” is a made-for-HBO trifle that hardly screams out pay TV (think more Hallmark Hall of Fame), which is all the more to the pay channel’s credit for recognizing the quiet power in this period piece.
Opening in 1930, pic chronicles the relationship between headstrong surgeon Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) and his African-American assistant, Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), who was instrumental in developing the pioneering procedure of cardiac surgery but, due to his race, was denied a share in the glory.
Putting aside his med-school ambitions to dive into Blalock’s research, Thomas struggles with low pay (he has to do odd jobs to cover his rent) and racial inequality. More skilled than most doctors, he’s labeled a “maintenance worker” before a rare show of temper prompts Blalock to intercede with their new medical home, Johns Hopkins U., on his behalf.
Veteran director Joe Sargent, whose HBO credits include “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” somehow makes the surgical gobbledygook thrilling.
Defying conventional wisdom among his peers, Blalock takes the plunge in operating on a baby girl turned blue by inadequate blood flow — even after a priest begs him not to tamper with God’s plan. “Perhaps God is, as you say, trying to kill this child,” the doctor says, smugly. “I am not.”
Spanning more than three decades, the characters age through subtle makeup and period clothing. And while there are stirring moments, the overwhelming feeling is one of melancholy owing to the limited opportunities minorities enjoyed during those years.
Rickman remains a wonderfully versatile actor, advancing from his stable of bad-guy roles into more middle-aged parts in “Love, Actually” and this. Def, meanwhile, with a series of low-key stage and screen roles under his belt, more than holds his own, making this very much a two-character piece in which the supporting players barely register.
HBO has been somewhat eclectic with its movie choices of late, focusing on smaller, more character-driven topics with niche appeal in order to undertake the occasional whopping enterprise like “Angels in America.” It’s a luxury most networks don’t share.
Yet whatever the business model that facilitates the channel’s strategy, the result has been some fine little films — the kind seldom seen on the major networks and almost wholly absent from the local multiplex. And in this instance, one with heart.