This film tells the remarkable story of Vivien Thomas (played by Mos Def), an African-American fine carpenter, who found his way into medicine through the back door and changed medical history. Hired when jobs were in short supply to work as a custodian and sometime lab assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), a research cardiologist, Thomas quickly becomes an irreplaceable research assistant. His keen observations, his skill with the most delicate machinery and, eventually, in performing experimental surgery on animals, make clear that he has both a genius and a calling.

Though the relationship has its tensions (Blalock, as a Southern white man and a doctor, has some blind spots in the matter of mutual human respect, though he highly values Thomas’s skills) it lasts for decades. The two move their families to Baltimore, where Blalock becomes Head of Surgery at Johns Hopkins and, much to his colleagues surprise and to some of their dismay, brings Thomas in to perform groundbreaking open heart surgery on a blue baby. It is not until after Blalock’s death that Thomas is granted an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins, where he continues to work in research until his own retirement.


Though it may, as films often do, somewhat oversimplify and abbreviate the story of Thomas’ unusual and moving achievements, this film offers the public an important piece of medical history, sensitively told, and thought-provoking. The issues it raises, both medical and social, drive to the heart of questions that degree-granting institutions, and research hospitals need to keep alive, especially whether and where there may be room for those who have gifts, but little access to the credentialing necessary to use their gifts for the common good. Rickman’s and Mos’s performances are memorable. They do credit to the complexity of the characters they are called upon to portray.

Primary Source

HBO Video