There’s little narrative tension in the film, save for a white-knuckle surgical scene late in the film. Any and all troubles are washed away with a dose of that try-try-again formula.
It opens with a 1987 scene where Carson, as head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, is contemplating performing risky surgery to separate the conjoined twins, and quickly flashes back to 1961, and his impoverished Detroit childhood, where everything is bathed in a warm, sepia-toned light—except for the black-and-white episodes of Jeopardy! and Father Knows Best playing on the TV set in the living room. From there, it plods forward, compressing his life into stilted episodes: Carson faces challenge, momentarily despairs, gets uplifting speech from his mother, triumphs. Fade to commercial.
It’s a shame, really, because there is a story to be told here, one that would travel beyond the standard conflict-despair-redemption fare of made-for-TV movies. There are hints of the man behind the cardboard cutout, hints of a violent temper that has to be mastered, of a mother wrestling with her own dark side, of rejection and rage, of the compromises that a black man faces on his way to the top.
Early on, there’s a lovely scene in which Carson, as a young boy, sits in church, raptly listening to a parable about a missionary doctor, a bandit king and a blue mouse. He’s just learned the definition of imagination—thanks to his mother—and in this sermon, something ignites within him, and his newly discovered imagination sweeps him away. Suddenly, he’s the good doctor battling the bandit king, and in this flight of fancy, he glimpses his own potential. It’s a charming moment, an illuminating moment, a risky moment. Gifted Hands would have greatly benefited from 119 more moments such as these.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root‘s senior culture writer.