A black nurse explains her role in the “Tuskegee Experiment.” Based on a true story. [Dir: Joseph Sargent/ Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, Craig Sheffer/ 118 min/ Drama/ Working for Government, Government as Bigot, Government Healthcare]
In 1932, the U.S. government Public Health Service began the “Tuskegee Experiment,” a now infamous study to determine the long-term effects of untreated syphilis on black men. Four hundred low-income black men infected with syphilis were induced to join the study with promises of free “treatment” for the disease, free rides to and from the clinic, free meals, and free physical exams.
But real treatment for syphilis was never given to them. The men unknowingly received placebos of various kinds for four decades, until finally in 1972 when Associated Press reporter Jean Heller exposed the study. By that time, many of the subjects had already died from syphilis or suffered related ailments. The film takes up the story in 1973 and is told through the fictionalized testimony of Eunice Evers (in real life, Eunice Rivers), a black woman who became the nurse supervisor of the project.
Miss Evers is a tragic character. She’s a well-intentioned person eager to do good, who becomes involved with this experiment because she is led to believe that it will culminate in treatment for all of the subjects involved. But as she gradually learns the true nature of what’s going on and does nothing to stop it, she becomes a guilt-ridden willing participant.
This is a classic example of a bureaucratic situation causing ordinary people to do things they would never do alone, by dispersing responsibility in a way that makes no one responsible. In particular, Nurse Evers worked for doctors in whom she had great faith and on whom she relied for good judgment. The doctors in turn worked for the Public Health Service, a respected government scientific agency that had requested that they perform this experiment, funded it, and knew they were doing it. And at the Public Health Service, well, this was one of many studies—one only examined infrequently since it was of a long-term character. Such is the nature of government—a vast bureaucracy full of unaccountable people under the liberating impression that they are operating for the public good—that it lends itself to these sorts of organized horrors.
Of course, racism was also a key factor in all this. But the focus here is the story of Nurse Evers, a black woman, and racism would not appear to explain her actions.
Libertarians have been relating the story of the Tuskegee Experiment to doubting listeners for years, so it is a relief to see it finally anointed with the credibility of cinema. The script, based on a play, is thoughtful in its analysis of Miss Evers’s probable motivations. Alfre Woodard gives a satisfying (and Emmy Award-winning) performance as Miss Evers.
The telling could have packed a bit more emotional punch; but if the body of the film doesn’t make your blood boil, the ending will. According to a statement made at the film’s close, no one involved in the Tuskegee Experiment ever apologized for their actions and no one was ever prosecuted.