'Gifted Hands': Revisiting the Made-for-TV Ben Carson Biopic

So that made-for-TV biopic the candidate mentioned in the GOP debates last night? It's worse than you can imagine

Kimberly Elise and Cuba Gooding Jr. in 'Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.' The Presidential candidate mentioned the 2009 made-for-TV movie at the end of last night's GOP debate. Credit: Everett Collection

At the end of last night's Republican presidential debate, Dr. Ben Carson was granted one last opportunity to appeal to voters before the Super Tuesday primaries inevitably force him to suspend his undead campaign. The retired neurosurgeon, whose personal charisma could generously be likened to that of a hung-over DMV agent, was determined not to throw away his shot. He raised both of his arms in front of him, turned his palms to the country, and unleashed his signature drawl: 

"Several years ago, a movie was made about these hands. These hands, by the grace of God, have saved many lives and healed many families."

Immaculate showman that he is, Carson naturally neglected to provide the title of the film — Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story — or to inform people as to where they might be able to watch it, i.e. YouTube, where someone has graciously ripped the video from a bootlegged Russian DVD. Of course, it's possible that Carson was deliberately attempting to obscure the fact that the movie is a made-for-TV hagiography starring a post-Radio Cuba Gooding, Jr. (In this fevered Lynchian nightmare of an election cycle, you really can't rule anything out.) On the other hand, we're talking about a man who's used his national media attention to repeatedly brag about stabbing someone, so the odds that there was anything remotely self-aware about Carson's sign-off are slim.

It was a strange moment for him to remind the American people that his life story was the stuff of a basic-cable movie, particularly when the movies about rival candidates Marco Rubio (Election), Donald Trump (A Clockwork Orange) and Ted Cruz (Zodiac) have all been so good. But Carson is the guy who said that he would look at the "fruit salad" of someone's life when considering them for a job, and Gifted Hands is nothing if not the fruit salad of his own.

Directed by Thomas Carter (Swing Kids) and shot with all the panache of a corporate-mandated sexual harassment video, Gifted Hands premiered on TNT on February 7th, 2009. The movie was a modest success, its 4.23 million viewers making it the 11th-most watched cable program of its week — it outperformed a Lakers game, but couldn't quite compete with iCarly, Burn Notice, or three separate episodes of NCIS. Adapted from the good doctor's 1996 memoir of the same name, this  Sunday-school version of The Knick is a lot like his presidential campaign: both nauseatingly safe and profoundly absurd. The Hollywood Reporter remarked that the film "had Emmy written all over it." The Hollywood Reporter was wrong. 

It opens on the fateful 1987 day when Carson (a heavily sedated Gooding) was asked to examine a pair of German babies — conjoined twins — in the hopes that he might be able to separate them in a way that would allow each of the young boys to live a reasonably normal life and function autonomously. "I wanted to kill myself when I learned the truth," their mother says, "but then I realized I would be killing two other beings, too." Don't worry, clumsily shoehorned mouthpiece for the religious right, Dr. Carson will take care of all the killing for you. But first, a dramatically inert tour of his life.

The film whisks us back in time to 1961 Detroit, where Sonya Carson (Kimberly Elise) and her two young sons have recently resettled in the wake of a nasty divorce. Our hero is the only black kid in his class, and he's convinced that he's stupid. "You weren't meant to be a failure, Bennie," his mom insists. "You're a smart boy, you're just not using your smartness." It's one of the only moments in the movie that feels true to the Ben Carson we've all come to know. 

Several details in Gifted Hands, however, do correspond closely to the Ben Carson we've only heard about. The candidate's legendary temper, for example, is front and center — a few scenes after punching a classmate over a Walter Cronkite reference, young Bennie almost attacks his mother with a hammer because she buys him a pair of pants he doesn't like. And then, Bennie experiences a miracle. Listening to his preacher sermonize about a missionary doctor who was attacked by bandits, the pre-teen Carson imagines having to hide from a sword-swinging Jack White lookalike who chases him on horseback while wearing a pirate hat. Later, in a heated "yo mama" at his junior high school, he brushes off the blistering attacks, and — in a formative moment that presages his legendary debate performances — manages to end the duel with a fatal "yo mama's so old that her birth certificate says 'expired' on it."  

"With the power of a single cut, young Bennie is absolved of his crime, transubstantiated into the body of Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., and dropped into the middle of an intense Yale foosball game circa 1969. Carson wins. God is great."

Meanwhile, his tireless mother is plagued by depression, and — unbeknownst to her sons — spends a stretch of time in a psychiatric facility. His academic successes are tainted by the shadow of racism (when Carson wins a spelling bee, a teacher tells the other students that they should be ashamed for allowing a fatherless black boy to outperform them). The next thing you know, he's stabbing a friend in the stomach for knocking over his radio. And like any young black American male who physically assaults someone in public, Carson is able to pray himself out of trouble. With the power of a single cut, young Bennie is absolved of his crime, transubstantiated into the body of Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., and dropped into the middle of an intense Yale foosball game circa 1969. Carson wins. God is great. 

Over the course of a thrilling montage involving staring at books in several different college libraries, Carson discovers that he has an affinity for brains. (Gooding's performance has exactly three modes: reading, praying, and trying not to cry while staring at babies. He's brilliant.)  But he isn't galvanized into embracing his gift until, at the end of a marathon study session, an apparition of his mother drops by New Haven to say: "You don't need the books — you got the books. Inside." Cut to: Carson acing the big test. Fuck books. Books are for heathens.

With every new chapter of Carson's story, he becomes less of an inspiration than he does a cautionary tale. His interview with the admissions director of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is a scene for the ages. The conversation isn't going well; all of the applicants are smart, and all of the applicants have good educations. But Carson has an ace up his sleeve: He's not running for President yet, so nobody is really fact-checking this shit. 

"The brain is a miracle," Gooding smiles. "Do you believe in miracles? Not a lot of doctors do. There's not a lot of faith among physicians. We study, report, cut open bodies… it's all very tangible, solid. But the fact is there's still so many things we just can't explain. I believe we're all capable of performing miracles… up here." In case it's not clear without video of the scene, Carson is pointing to his head. "I believe we're all blessed with astonishing gifts and skills," he continues. "Look at Handel — how can he compose something like The Messiah in three weeks?" And the admissions officer of JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICAL SCHOOL is like "…Oh my God. I was wrong to doubt that you should spend the rest of your life sticking your hands into people's heads." And Carson is all: "Well, they are gifted." 

The movie ends with Carson standing behind a podium and announcing his triumph to the world. A title card reads: "The Rausch twins survived the surgery and moved back to Germany where they live today." Not to split hairs, but a more accurate version of that title card might have read: "The Rausch twins survived the surgery and moved back to Germany where they live today as wards of the state because neither of them can function properly and one is vegetative."

Also, because that's already a lot of words, perhaps the next title card (there are so many) should have read: "The twins' desolate mother, scarred by the experience, later confessed that she ‘Will never get over this,' before rhetorically asking 'why did I have them separated?'" And while Carter can't be held accountable for the recent revelation that one of the twins was probably dead by 2009, he might have thought to qualify the information his film presents about Carson's subsequent work by mentioning that only two of the 10 craniopagus twins Carson later operated on survived the procedures without catastrophic complications.

And, just for fun, why not a title card about how the star-making surgery resulted in a book deal, a lucrative speaking career, and — praise Jesus — a guest apearance in the Farrelly brothers' film about conjoined twins, Stuck on You? At one point in Gifted Hands, the would-be President of the United States supposedly shows up for a cameo, but — for those of us who only know him from the political circus — the real Ben Carson is hard to recognize.