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Media > Idiot Boxing

Art imitates life, again

Bennie Carson's Detroit life makes eye-popping TV fodder

Separated at birth?: Cuba Gooding Jr. (left) and Dr. Benjamin Carson.
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Published 2/4/2009

Dr. Benjamin Carson asks, "Did you recognize some of the places in Detroit?" — his voice a mixture of excitement and quiet satisfaction. Carson, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore and arguably the world's most famous brain doctor, returned to his hometown of Detroit to watch scenes from his life re-created in the places they actually happened for the cable bio-movie Gifted Hands, premiering at 8 p.m. Saturday on TNT. Now he's savoring the results. Talk about a surreal opportunity.

"You know, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they still have the same pictures up!" Carson says with a laugh. (Scenes also were filmed at the Detroit Public Library's downtown branch, among other places.) "This really was very touching to me. I'm anxious for the young people in Detroit to see this movie and be able to identify places in it, to identify with my life and begin to think about what they can do, not what they can't do."

Talk about art imitating life. Carson, 57, claims movie companies have been approaching him for more than 10 years to turn his inspiring memoir into a film, "but I never had a level of trust with any of them." However, when the Hatchery LLC, which has held the rights to his story since 2003, came calling with Sony Pictures as partner and the "Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation" banner above the title, Carson felt confident in his operating team. And thanks to Michigan's generous tax incentives for moviemakers, Detroit not only was the most appropriate place to make the picture, but also the most economical. (Prayers for Bobby, another made-for-cable movie shot primarily in Royal Oak, is airing currently on Lifetime.

Gifted Hands is the powerful, nearly unbelievable story of young Bennie Carson, a troubled African-American kid from our inner city who's failing every class in school and on a fast track to oblivion. His father abandoned the family, and his mother, Sonya (played brilliantly by The Great Debaters' Kimberly Elise), who battles bouts of depression, is forced to be sole breadwinner, although she has a third-grade education and cannot read. Nevertheless, through her sheer persistence and unwavering belief in Bennie's potential, he slowly begins to find himself.

But Bennie is given to violent outbursts to unleash his rage. In the tipping point of the movie — and his life — he becomes so angered by a classmate that he takes the camping knife he was toying with and plunges it into the student's midsection. The blade hits a belt buckle and breaks in half, causing no damage.

"That [scene] was very accurate," Carson recalled. "I struck it with such force that it broke right in the middle. I was horrified. I had turned things around academically by that time, and realized I was completely out of control. I ran home and locked myself in the bathroom.

"I stayed in that bathroom for three hours, praying and reading from the book of Proverbs," he says. "I realized if I had not hit that belt buckle, and he had been killed or seriously injured, I would have been on my way to jail and never fulfilled my dream of becoming a doctor. That had a huge impact on me. I came to the understanding that lashing out at people is a sign of weakness, not strength, and I simply had to stop being so selfish. The reason I would get so angry was because everything was about me, not about others. Once I learned that lesson, the whole thing changed."

Carson earned a scholarship to Yale, graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan, and became the first black person accepted into the residency program at Johns Hopkins. Gifted Hands brushes lightly against the racism he encountered along his educational journey, choosing instead to focus on the historic 22-hour procedure in 1987, when Carson led a 70-member medical team to separate 7-month-old Siamese twins who were joined at the head. That long, penultimate scene in the operating theater puts anything you've ever witnessed on ER to shame.

It took three actors to portray Carson at various stages of his life, but the majority of attention goes to Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays him from college student into adulthood. "He doesn't look anything like me, but other than that," Carson says, breaking into a laugh. "I think he did a fabulous job. I would have chosen him because he's a man with very strong values. He's married to the same wife, which is almost unheard-of in Hollywood, he's very devoted to his family and he believes in God. I just think he was a perfect pick."

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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