Miss Evers' Boys (DVD, 2002) Reviews
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Miss Evers' Boys (DVD, 2002)

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The Tuskegee Experiment

Mar 31, 2003 (Updated Mar 31, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Powerful docudrama of a true story, Alfre Woodard's performance, Realistic

Cons:Topic may be disturbing to some viewers

The Bottom Line: Compelling docudrama of a real life story dealing with medical ethics

Super cable network HBO has developed a reputation for airing intense, thought provoking, docudramas on sensitive subjects. Their 1997 production Miss Evers' Boys, which won 5 Emmy Awards, including "Best Made For Television Movie," is no exception. Set primarily in a Tuskegee, Alabama hospital from 1932-1972, the film is told from the perspective of a black Nurse Eunice Evers, who participated in the now infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Blacks With Syphilis. The film is adapted from the play by David Feldshuh, which was based on the book by James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This film has a lot in common with a previous HBO production, And The Band Played On, which dramatizes the government's successful effort at withholding information about medical research and treatment during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

While both of these films deal with social and ethical issues in a medical setting, Miss Evers' Boys includes the tangential issue of racial prejudice during a period that spanned the Civil Rights movement in America. Although this is somewhat downplayed in the film, it's undertones are undeniable.

During a 40 year period from 1932-1972, the United States Public Health Service sponsored a study of the affects of the treatment of syphilis, to determine whether there was a difference in the way African Americans and Caucasians responded to the disease. Active treatment was provided in the early stages. However, after the initial stages of the study, a group of infected males were treated with only placebos and liniment while health officials failed to fully explain the nature of the research to the victims, telling them only that they had "bad blood." Doctors withheld penicillin although it became the standard treatment for syphilis in the mid 1940's. By the time this study was finally revealed to the general public in the 1970's, all but 127 of the original study group had died from the disease. A class action lawsuit resulted in a public apology by President Bill Clinton and modest financial reparations to the remaining subjects or their descendants.

The film opens with an elderly, retired Eunice Evers (Alfre Woodard) testifying before a Senate subcommittee regarding her participation in the program. The story is told through a series of flashbacks between the Senate hearings and the forty year span of the experiment. Miss Evers is portrayed as a sort of secondary victim of the study, who sacrificed the best years of her life, dealing with deep personal conflicts, which challenged her moral and ethicals beliefs. She compares each phase of the experiment to climbing a series of mountains, not unlike that described in The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's famous mountaintop speech.

The Doctors involved in the experiment one black, Dr. Brodus (Joe Morton) and one white, Dr. Douglas (Craig Sheffer) are portrayed as pawns in the government mandated study, that originally promised to provide treatment after a 6 to 12 month trial study. The treatment phase never materialize as the initial sense of the nobility of the study soon wore off on the Doctors who eventually attempted to justify their role as a breakthrough study for medical research long after any positive effect was possible.

As would be expected, in the end, the government attempted to vilify Ms. Evers and the Tuskegee medical staff rather than taking responsibility for their own indiscretions. In a very heart wrenching and moving speech before the subcommittee, Nurse Evers describes her sacrifice and tough personal compromises, giving up her chance for marriage to one of the experiment subjects (Laurence Fishburne) who eventually was treated with penicillin in the military, in order to serve as handmaid and primary source of emotional support to the dying victims.

The title Miss Evers' Boys refers to a singing and dancing troupe made up of study subjects, named in the honor of the beloved Nurse. The film does an excellent job of capturing the dirt poor conditions of the sharecroppers in the rural Alabama setting. Director Joseph Sargent (Mandela) relies primarily on the sheer power of the story and well developed characters to carry the plot, since there is very little action and suspense in the film. Co-Executive Producer Laurence Fishburne, delivers an excellent understated performance as Caleb Humphries, Miss Evers' persistent, but ultimately unsuccessful romantic suitor. E. G. Marshall is also excellent in his role as the smug Senate Chairman. Ossie Davis adds a noteworthy performance as Miss Evers' tough minded, but supportive father. The film, however, belongs to Alfre Woodard who is simply astounding with the range of emotion she displays in this compelling role. I have long felt that Ms. Woodard is one of the most underrated actress in Hollywood, and this performance only solidified that conviction. She deservedly won an Emmy Award for her performance in this film.

Miss Evers' Boys is not in any sense a triumphant, feel good, story but rather; it depicts, with stark realism one of the darker chapters in the annals of our country's medical research. As the film aptly points out, it also flies in the face of one of the most basic tenets of the medical profession, "first do no harm."

Recommend this product? Yes

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DVD, PG, 118 minutes, Warner Home Video
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