Known for his movies about daring individualists, director Thomas Carter (Coach Carter, Save the Last Dance, Swing Kids) turns to the story of America’s first doctor to successfully separate craniopagus (Siamese) twins in a Turner Network Television (TNT) original movie, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. The movie premieres at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 7.
The three-time Emmy® winner and six-time nominee is not new to TV; he directed the pilots for Miami Vice, St. Elsewhere and Equal Justice, which he co-created and executive produced. Mr. Carter’s first theatrical feature, Swing Kids, starring Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) and Robert Sean Leonard (House), about pro-American German youths who defied the Nazis, premiered in 1993. His 2005 hit, Coach Carter, a sports drama starring Samuel L. Jackson, exceeded box office forecasts. Thomas Carter, who co-starred in the CBS basketball drama The White Shadow, for which he directed three episodes, is making a motion picture about baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story is a TNT Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation® about Ben Carson, MD, professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Dr. Carson also conducted the first completely successful separation of type-2 vertical craniopagus twins in 1997 and the first successful placement of an intrauterine shunt for a hydrocephalic twin. He serves on the board of directors of Kellogg Co. In 2008, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Have you read Dr. Ben Carson’s book, Gifted Hands?
Yes. I identified with Ben’s story, Not so much with the family circumstances, because I grew up in a nuclear family; my dad was there. But I knew many kids like Ben—kids with a lot of promise—and I felt like I knew him; like me, he valued [obtaining an] education in an environment where not everyone does. My mom was a home economics teacher and the whole area of education was personally close to me. I first spoke with Ben on the phone. I didn’t meet him until production.
What was your first thought when you met him?
When I first saw him on the book jacket cover, I thought: ‘oh, my God, that guy resembles me.’ When I met Ben—when I first saw him—I was struck by how unassuming and unpretentious and gentle he is—a man of such enormous gifts and achievements who is gracious with others.
As an artist, what drew you to this story?
People approach me about potential projects all the time but I chose to become involved with this because the message of young people—black or white or other—who are not privileged to have an encouraging environment have to realize that they can be inspired by people they can relate to—people who are not just singers and actors—including doctors and lawyers and scientists and engineers, people who are still alive. So, I couldn’t walk away from this. I’m a supporter of Barack Obama and one of the things I’m struck by is not just President Obama’s point that there is no red state or blue state America—just the United States of America—but also that [Obama] said there’s nothing wrong with reading a book; that it’s not ‘acting white’—that he dared to say to black parents that we have to turn off the TV set and open a book. That kind of thing is not said enough and it is very powerful. This character, Dr. Ben Carson, is the embodiment of that thought. That’s what the mother character [played by Kimberly Elise] does. She reminds me of my father, because he could not read and he had that same attitude toward education. Ben’s mom eventually did learn to read—she got her GED [General Educational Development for high school equivalency]—and she obviously was a determined woman. She did it for herself.
Speaking of the nation’s new president and self-interest, during a recent press conference, actress Kimberly Elise explicitly referred to her character as someone who puts herself first—one who exhibits the virtue of selfishness—and this contradicts President Obama’s denunciation of selfishness as a virtue. In your view, is Dr. Ben Carson selfless or selfish?
I think he’s selfish in the service of others. I don’t know whether the normal usage of those terms applies; he is selfish in that he cares about his own fulfillment and I think that’s a [virtue]. It’s good to have self-esteem, self-reliance and self-confidence—without being self-obsessed. He is selfish in a positive sense—but he is selfless in that his greatest joy is to use his ability to serve others. In [Dr. Carson’s mother] Sonya’s case, she clearly puts her kids before herself, but, in getting well, she is wise enough to know that she has to get well herself. It’s recognized in modern psychology that you have to learn to love yourself [first]. That’s one of the things we should teach—you could get personal joy out of helping others.
The gospel tune ‘Amazing Grace’ plays following a climactic scene. Does Gifted Hands imply that belief in God caused Dr. Ben Carson’s success?
Ben believes—and he’s a very religious person—that God was instrumental and that he has called on God in key points in his life. I tried to reference that in the film without turning it into a religious journey.
Do you believe the successful operation depicted is a miracle?
No, and I don’t think Ben thinks it’s a miracle—not in a mystical sense. The miracle of science was revealed to the surgeon, to him, in that particular case, so I’m sure Ben feels that God had a hand in it. But, clearly, he is also a man of science. When you’re doubtful, you [may] call on God to steel you toward success, though there is the danger of allowing faith to substitute for the work. I think of the saying that God helps those who help themselves; faith is not a passive endeavor. You have to go out and do things.
Was it hard to obtain those classic TV clips from The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best and Password?
No. Those are old [programs] and it wasn’t hard to get them. What was hard to get was the [rights to the] popular period music.
You worked with top talent: Cuba Gooding, Jr. Kimberly Elise and Aunjanue Ellis. How did you get them?
Both Cuba and Kimberly were offered their roles, as well as Aunjanue. I had meetings with both Cuba and Kimberly to discuss the project and we agreed to work together. Other roles were cast in three different cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, where the movie was filmed.
How did you approach directing Cuba Gooding, Jr.?
I knew this was a great opportunity for Cuba to show his dramatic chops because he’s been doing so much comedy. Together, we worked the challenges. I think he acquits himself quite powerfully in the film.
What is the theme of your upcoming theatrical movie about Jackie Robinson?
That movie is a look at the successful integration of Major League Baseball through the Herculean efforts of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, president and part owner of the [Brooklyn] Dodgers—one working on the field, one working behind the scenes off the field.
What is the theme of Gifted Hands?
The power of individual effort. I’m thinking of when Ben finally grabs on to who he wants to be—that he wants to fulfill his potential and that he works to do that. He decides not to respond in anger, to apply himself in school, to not go along with the crowd and he becomes one of the few black people at Johns Hopkins University—but, beyond [the fact of his] race, he was struggling to learn surgery. [Dr. Carson’s wife] Candy [portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis] gives him some clues but he figures it out. He never stops. It’s also about the power of purposeful parenting—more than being just a loving parent, with love as a passive endeavor—more than merely saying you love your kid without demanding anything of him.