The documentary Code Black is set in Los Angeles County Hospital’s emergency room and chronicles the education of four residents at the famous county hospital. The début filmmaking project of LA County physician Ryan McGarry, who films himself, his classmates, patients, and colleagues, it is clearly a labor of love, made with passion for storytelling, for the work that he does, and for capturing the different personalities of all who come through one of America’s busiest emergency rooms.
The film is strongest and at its most honest when it captures the spontaneity, frustration, and transitory moments of working in a space which supports the neglected of Los Angeles. There are close-up shots of the legs of EMT workers as they ferry a patient through a crowded hospital hallway; overhead shots of a team of people working to save someone’s life, replete with blood, masks, and weary shoulders; a senior RN struggling to provide a woman with a dignified death (the best aside in the film); and, a frustrated hospital administrator having to close one ward because of a nursing staff shortage. Filmed and completed during the Obamacare years, it also has a particular resonance in terms of highlighting the inequity in the country’s current healthcare system. Wisely, the film does not take overt sides; that this ER department serves as general medicine, psychiatric, emergency, and oncology ward to the poor and uninsured speaks volumes about the current situation. In moving from the “Old County” Hospital—a remarkable example of California Art Deco—to the gleaming and glassy new county hospital, the residents also experience a shift in protocol and new and much-delayed regulation (read: form-filling) which, while to ensure patient safety, reduces the amount of caregiving time in an already under-staffed hospital.
There were some moments, however, when this independent film felt like a Hollywood production and thus detracted from its immediacy. First, this particular county hospital could not be set anywhere else but Los Angeles; all the resident staff who were filmed are uniformly good-looking, healthy, all-American types with enough competitive drive and ethnic diversity to please Shonda Rimes. Their extra-hospital scenes in bars and sunny California kitchens are filmed in such a way that reminds you of the set from Friends. The residents’ asides also sometimes struck a false note, particularly when they stressed the importance of their job to save lives; further, in protesting the amount of hospital regulation and paperwork, they come off as entitled – they want to save lives in the way they want to and not in the way “the system” says they should. There is no doubt that they would rather be taking care of people than paperwork. However, the audience does not need to be convinced of their importance; we come to the film already knowing that their heart is in the right place and that they are working under enormous pressure with little resources. Rather, their on-camera interviews are most successful and moving when they talk about their reasons for entering the profession—a bout with cancer, a parent with Alzheimer’s, a childhood tragedy. That the director is also the “star” of the film sometimes gives it a promotional, advertising feel, rather than the more detached point of view which one expects from a documentary. That said, the film is certainly a fresh, engaging, and enthusiastic project which one hopes raises awareness of the plight of public hospitals.
Winner of Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Code Black, dir. Ryan McGarry, 82 min. Long Shot Factory, et al., 2014. Visit www.codeblackmovie.com for screening information.