Poly Arts Debuts Alumni-in-Film Series

“I hope that viewers will embrace the sense of innovation captured in the film [‘Something the Lord Made‘]. I hope that they will appreciate that the creativity and ingenuity that led to this being a success was harnessed by a young Black man, who was able to display resilience and persistence despite the barriers he faced solely because of his race.” Dr. Alyson Fox ’96

Alumni-in-Film Series
Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03
Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03

In Poly’s new Alumni-in-film series, the community is invited to view films at their leisure, then join a discussion with Poly alumni involved in making the film and other invited guests. Aberlin, who served as moderator of the discussion, was instrumental in the in-person discussion of another of Cort’s 57 films, On the Basis of Sex, in March 2019. But the pandemic forced the new Alumni-in-Film series to go virtual. “Once it became clear that a live event wasn’t going to happen,” Aberlin said, “I started working through how to do it as a webinar.  It actually made things much easier.  The logistics of getting people to Brooklyn and showing the films became much easier.”

Mandy Pabon

It was the persistence of Poly’s Director of Arts Outreach Robert Aberlin ’62, P’00, ’03 and Head of Arts Michael S. Robinson that brought about the first event in Poly’s new Alumni-in-Film series, which featured panelists producer Robert Cort ’64, Dr. Alyson Fox ’96, Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor ’96, P’27, and Poly science teacher Mandy Pabon in a discussion of the film Something the Lord Has Made on November 12.

Something the Lord Made, a made-for-television biographical drama, is about the Black cardiac surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas and his complex partnership with white surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock, the “Blue Baby doctor,” who pioneered modern heart surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The film won three Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. “We won the Emmy for Best Original Film Made for Television,” Cort said. The film is available on Amazon Prime. Watch trailer.

Dr. Joseph Wright ’75

Aberlin welcomed the “terrific group of panelists.” He introduced a short video message from Dr. Joseph Wright ’75, who said that since he saw the film in 2004, he has been on a mission to promote the film and the story of Vivien Thomas among the medical community. Audience questions for the panel arrived in the webinar’s Q&A section and were fielded by Robinson.

“I originated the movie and produced it after reading an article in Baltimore magazine,” said Cort of Something the Lord Has Made in advance. Cort explained, “I think the best training for what I’ve done all my life—what helped me make 57 films—is understanding human behavior through reading, studying history, and observing the world every day.”

“I hope people thrill to the extraordinary accomplishment of the two men who created heart surgery,” Cort said. “And that they understand the conditions under which they worked, the personal toll, and most significantly, the racial injustices rife in the process.” He explained to the audience he developed the script for eight years, but could not find anyone interested in making it until HBO. He added, “It was one of the great joys of my life getting this film made.” (Watch video of Cort accepting Peabody Award for the film.)

Robert Cort ’64
Robert Cort ’64

Aberlin asked Pabon, who has taught at Poly since 2008, how she has used the film. She said she has shown the film, which “marries social justice and science,” in her Anatomy & Physiology and Honors Biology classes. She said she “conducted an entire class on the clip about ‘fix the bypass.’”

In advance, panelist Dr. Melanie Wilson Taylor ’96 shared that she has observed the surgery, which is the subject of the film. “I am a general pediatrician,” said Dr. Wilson Taylor, “and have taken care of children who have undergone the B-T-T [Blalock–Thomas–Taussig shunt] surgery and recognize the significance of this surgery as it relates to mortality of these patients prior to development of this surgery.”

Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor ’96, P’27
Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor ’96, P’27

“I am hoping that viewers will recognize that the delayed recognition of Vivien Thomas’ role in this procedure is not unique to him and that there are many inventors, scientists who are of disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, or women who are underrecognized for their contributions,” said Dr. Wilson-Taylor. 

“If your doctor looks like you, there are better outcomes.”

Dr. Wilson-Taylor said that Poly “gave me a well-rounded exposure to academics, athletics, and the arts and a community of diverse backgrounds, which helped to form a sense of self-identity and confidence needed to pursue a career in medicine.”

Aberlin asked Dr. Wilson-Taylor about women and women of color in medical school. She said that when she was a student, half the class was made up of women but the numbers were much less for minorities. “There is a long way to go,” she said and added, “If your doctor looks like you, there are better outcomes.”

Dr. Alyson Fox ’96
Dr. Alyson Fox ’96

Dr. Alyson Fox ’96, a transplant hepatologist, attended Johns Hopkins University, where Something the Lord Has Made was filmed and answered some questions in advance. “One of the revolutionary things that happened here,” she said of the surgery, “was that they shunted—diverted blood flow—in order to work on an organ, kind of like leaving the car on while fixing the engine—this was groundbreaking! This principle of diverting flow holds true today and is used to manipulate physiology in many life-saving procedures.” 

Both Dr. Wilson-Taylor (Weill Cornell Medicine)  and Dr. Fox (Columbia University Medical Center) are on the faculty of medical schools. Robinson asked a question from the audience: “What does the future hold for people of color in medicine?” Dr. Fox said that medical schools “should use this movie in medical school. It will be a push to get students of color into medical school.”

Pabon cited a Washington Post article about a Black medical student who could not find any illustrations in medical books of how symptoms look on darker skin. His efforts resulted in the book Mind the Gap: A Handbook of Clinical Signs in Black and Brown Skin.

Cort spoke about the casting of Mos Def and Alan Rickman for the main roles and their relationship with director Joe Sargent. He commented on the complexity of the two main characters, Blalock and Thomas, and the “importance of doing justice to the people you are portraying.”

At the conclusion of the event, Cort shared how he had previewed the film for surgeons from Johns Hopkins, as well as the Thomas family. Cort said he had stayed as true to the truth as possible and was very nervous about their reactions. At the end of the film there was silence. He approached the surgeons, who said they were very pleased, and then went over to the Thomas family. Vivien Thomas’ son-in-law told Cort, “For two hours my father-in-law was alive again.”

Aberlin thanked the panelists and encouraged everyone to attend future events. “I have four more films planned so I hope to be showing one per month through April or May.  Future Alumni-in-Film events in 2021 include: Work It by Laura Terruso ’99, director; and Sprinter by Robert Maylor ’96, writer, producer.

The next Alumni-in-Film event is a discussion of Critical Thinking on December 2 at 6 PM.

Register to join this Alumni-in-Film event .

Critical Thinking, starring John Leguizamo, is based on the story of the 1998 Miami Jackson Senior High School chess team that defied the odds and overcame incredible adversity to become the first urban high school to win the U.S. Chess National Championship. Panelists include actor Will Hochman ’10, Marlene Hochman P’07, ’10, ‘10, Gil Luna, the original chess player portrayed by Will Hochman, and Carla Berkowitz, executive producer.