Somewhere out there is a biopic worthy of the many talents of pediatric neurosurgeon, author and motivational speaker Ben Carson, he of the spectacular surgeries and the bestselling books. The man’s got a story to tell, and in this age of Obama, stories that celebrate the life of black intellect are welcome, indeed.
Too bad that Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, airing Saturday on TNT, is not that biopic.
Oh sure, it’s got a talented cast: Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carson; Kimberly Elise as his saintly mother and Aunjanue Ellis as his Yalie wife who roots him on from the sidelines. And it’s got the potential for a compelling story line: Socially awkward F student—with a mentally ill, illiterate, single mother—triumphs over all kinds of crazy odds to become the first surgeon to separate Siamese twins joined at the back of the head.
But what Gifted Hands doesn’t have is a good script. Instead, it’s got all the subtlety and complexity of an after-school special. It’s a story about the evolution of a nerd, but it doesn’t ever let us inside his head. Instead, it reduces Carson’s life to a series of obstacles to be leapfrogged over: Can he earn an “A” instead of an “F”? Yes, he can! Can he overcome racist white teachers? Yes, he can! Can he learn to play the dozens, thereby dodging the mockery of his peers? Yes, he can! He even saves lives, too!
The characters don’t speak as much as they pronounce, with the pronouncements sticking to one hackneyed theme: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again: “You can be whatever you want to be” and “You’re the best pediatric neurosurgeon in the world. If you can’t find a solution, no one can.”
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.