One of the more interesting films that screened during Black History Month was “Black Women In Medicine.”
This documentary chronicles the rise and fall (and hoped-for re-rise) of black female doctors. Forget Spike Lee. This great film was conceptualized, written, produced, and directed by Crystal R. Emery, a dynamic personality whose vision is so clear, and whose commitment is so strong that she started the Changing the Face of Medicine program to expedite the creation of black women doctors. In her down time, she has authored three books, including a coffee table treatment of the film.
Ms. Emery came to this film project with a unique set of personal and professional experiences. A wheel chair-based (can’t say bound with this lady) quadriplegic, her muscular dystrophy treatment forced a close interaction with medical professionals. In a way, her physical conditions made her qualified to address the subject of the documentary.
The program starts in the beginning, when women were the primary care givers. Nature was the pharmacy; herbs, psychology, and touch were the basic treatments. The setting then shifts to antebellum south, where enslaved African women continued to provide treatment.
The modern reality is that only 4% of licensed physicians in America are black, with women constituting one half of that number. This percentage is down from the 7% level reached in the mid 20th century.
The film profiles a representative group of black female physicians. In sharing their personal stories, we are able to see the big picture; how black women navigate the obstacles blocking access to the medical profession.
There was the physician who, as head of a surgical team had to convince her skeptical patient that she really was the medical professional in charge of her treatment.
And the physician who had four pre-wedlock children. Refusing to be a stereotype, she entered and completed her medical school and residency. She also got married.
And the physician whose mother, an expert seamstress, taught her to sew. She decided to become a surgeon because she know she could sew up the patients better than her white colleagues. .
And there’s the physician who, when raising the gown of her male patient, found tattoo-ed evidence of his white supremacist views – in a very private place.
Director Emery selected a diverse group of women to tell this story. There are older doctors who entered the field due to the human rights struggles of the mid 20th century. And there were young physicians who received their residencies (post-internship job assignment) on camera.
Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and NYU trained doctors were among the profiled subjects. Possibly the one problem with the film was its failure to include more HBCU alums in the group. These less prestigious schools still produce many more than their proportionate share of black doctors, engineers, and STEM professionals.
The film has celebrity participants including Jocelyn Elders, who was appointed Surgeon General during the (Bill) Clinton administration. The politician/surgeon Ben Carson also has a thankfully non-political cameo towards the end of the documentary.
This film should be seen in every after school, sports, religious, or cultural program serving young Black women or men. As Dr. Elders put it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Young people need to know that there are pathways – narrow, with many internal and external obstacles – to a career of public service and personal satisfaction. We need to patronize the quality films that tell us what we need to know – regardless of the Oscars voting population.
And we need to recognize that the over-politicized, under-performing public school system may not be willing to provide Black children with the foundation needed for a medical or technical career.