'Black Women in Medicine': Film Review

Courtesy of Michael Benson/URU The Right To Be, Inc.
A useful if uncinematic supply of role models.
8/26/2016

Trailblazing docs and fresh grads assess the progress of black women in the medical field.

African-American teens may not be the only viewers surprised to learn that America saw its first black woman graduate from medical school way back in 1864, when Rebecca Lee Crumpler got her M.D. at the New England Female Medical College. But they are the most appropriate target for Crystal Emery's Black Women in Medicine, which finds a variety of present-day role models of such achievement for those who may lack them in their own communities. Emery's film lacks the production values and narrative elements that might have made it appropriate for general audiences, but it has clear inspirational value for youngsters who will encounter it in special theatrical presentations or on TV.

Starting off by speaking to several new med-school grads embarking on their residencies, Emery finds self-assured young women who seem never to have doubted that this career path was theirs if they wanted it. Her interviews with older physicians, though, underline how recent a development that is: The doc shows what a rarity a black med student was in the civil rights era, then sketches the impact Affirmative Action had. It wasn't only that first generation or two of pioneers, judging from interviews here, who got through the door only to be greeted by (sometimes unwitting) discrimination from their fellow doctors.

Reminding us that class and social factors can be as big a barrier to advanced degrees as race, the film introduces Karen Morris-Priester, an anesthesiologist who graduated in 2007 from Yale despite being, as she puts it, "everything people say you're not supposed to be." Pregnant at 16, a mother of five before she ever got married, she says she went to school in part so her children would believe her claims that they could do it.

Roundtable scenes where Emery's subjects talk to each other aren't as compelling as those in which they tell their stories to the camera, and occasionally, a thought-provoking observation goes unexplored. But there's enough here to make this film useful in classroom settings, particularly in communities where "you can be whatever you want to be" sometimes sounds more hopeful than honest.

Production companies: URU, The Right to Be
Director-screenwriter: Crystal R. Emery
Producers: Crystal R. Emery, Ted Maynard
Executive producers: Roslyn Meyer, JoAnn H. Price
Director of photography: Robert Shepard
Editor: Jason L. Pollard
Composer: Bill Toles

Not rated, 55 minutes

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