Movie review: Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (2009)

Gifted Hands starts with a heartrending story. A pregnant couple gets some devastating news. Their twins are joined at the head. After birth, the twins will likely spend all of their lives in bed. Or one will die during surgery to separate them.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Dr. Carson, who mulls over whether he should attempt the surgery, which hinges on if he can figure out how to prevent one or both of the babies from bleeding to death during the surgery.

Then the movie flashes back to his youth in Detroit. Clearly, he could have been one of thousands of other disadvantaged youth who grew up uneducated, working menial jobs, scraping by. But at numerous points in his life, there were key decisions made that prevented him going down the path that was almost predestined for him.

His mother was a key influence. She demanded much from her children (Ben and his brother), despite what they were told by others around them, despite the voices in their heads that told them they were stupid. She demanded that they learn their multiplication tables. And they did, the start of changes to their test scores and grades.

For reasons unknown, she could see beyond her life, her experiences in the world around her. Not everyone can do this. Not everyone can truly want a different life for their children. She landed as a cleaning lady at a seemingly kind professor’s house. And saw what kind of life he lived, the proliferation of books and learning in his life. She turned around and demanded reading and academic success from her children.

Reading and learning became a virtuous circle for the children. The more they learned, the more they seemed to see the world open up before them. The more they saw possibilities and their place among them.

A dream from a preacher was another key influence. A story during a Sunday service about a doctor missionary seemingly inspired Ben. That was what he was going to be. A doctor. No question about it. No obstacles. He was doing it.

Another key influence was something inside Ben. He had issues with anger that were set to lead him down paths of destruction. With his mother. With school. But we see him make a conscious choice, scared by what he did, to turn away from anger. And that made a huge impact in his life.

Access to good education influenced his life trajectory. While he had to apply himself rather than coast through a school system that seemed to accept his failure, he did seem to have opportunities to be exposed to a good education. He started out in a mostly white elementary school. After eighth grade, after a horribly racist incident involving his teacher, he enrolled in a black school. Next we see him at Yale. Third in his class among those who were first. The ever-present self-doubt was countered by the strong women in his life—his mother and his future wife—who encouraged him.

And last, I would point to something inside of him that pushed him forward. His success in life wouldn’t have happened without his mother and her influence, without the access to books and an education, without dreams inspired by a preacher’s sermon. But none of that would have mattered I think, if he didn’t have something inside of him that saw the possibilities, the opportunities, and ran with them.

Gifted Hands is an inspiring tale of one person’s way out of poverty. It shows a child initially seen as worthless by his teacher and fellow students rise to become a world-renown neurosurgeon. A neurosurgeon who was the first to successfully separate craniopagus twins. And who successfully paved the way to the use of hemisperectomy in children to stop epileptic seizures.


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