|A lumbar puncture being performed. Brainhell, 2006. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
– Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890)
No Way Out is a 1950 movie about medicine and racism that deserves more attention than it has received. The story takes place in an unnamed city. Blacks live separately from whites, and poor whites live in another area called Beaver Canal. In the film, Dr. Luther Brooks, played by Sidney Poitier in his first feature role, is the first “negro” intern at County Hospital.
From 1920–1964, only 2-3% of medical students in the U.S. were Black. In the 1940s, just 10–20% of Black doctors graduated from schools other than Howard University and Meharry College, two historically Black medical schools. Many medical schools were simply closed to Blacks.1
In the film, Dr. Brooks works many menial jobs to pay his way through school. He pushes himself and excels. One night, he is covering the prison ward of the hospital when two brothers are brought in for robbery. They had both been shot in the leg by police during the robbery attempt. The younger brother, Johnny Biddle, was confused. In the hospital, a lit cigarette burns his hand and he does not react.
Dr. Brooks performs a lumbar puncture to determine the cause, but Johnny dies during the procedure. His brother Ray, a vicious racist, tells Brooks that he killed Johnny and releases an enormous store of racial epithets. “My brother would be alive if he had a white doctor,” he says. “They killed Johnny and they’re trying to cover up.” Dr. Brooks advises an autopsy, as he suspects Johnny had a brain tumor. Ray refuses. Johnny’s ex-wife Edie has no legal standing and cannot convince Ray to give permission for the autopsy.
The film depicts Dr. Brooks as an exhausted intern with a loving wife and family who is working to improve his circumstances. Ray manages to organize a race riot through Johnny’s ex-wife. The Blacks in the city are forewarned, surprise the whites who have assembled in the junkyard, and get the better of them. Biddle manages to escape from police custody. We learn next that Dr. Brooks himself is in jail. He has given himself up for the “murder” of Johnny Biddle. This ingenious move makes Johnny’s death a possible crime and an autopsy is mandatory. The autopsy reveals a glioma, a type of brain tumor, and Dr. Brooks is vindicated.
Why the title No Way Out? Perhaps because a Black man who is smart and competent remains trapped by the prejudices of the majority society. Or perhaps it is the racists who remain trapped in their hatred because of what has been passed down from relatives and neighbors. The film did not do well at the box office. It was “too stark” for a “country not ready to listen” and was not released in most parts of the U.S. South.2 Richard Widmark, who convincingly played the hateful Ray Biddle, apologized to Sidney Poitier after each scene of shouting epithets.3
Today, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans comprise one-third of the U.S. population. However, they comprise only 9% of physicians.4 Only 3.6% of medical school faculty are Black and 5.5% are Hispanic.5 Black doctors are still mistaken for janitors6 and some highly placed journal editors do not think that racism influences health disparities.7
- Peter Dans. Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah. (2000). Bloomington, IL: Medi-Ed Press.
- Marvin Smith. “No Way Out.” 2010. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228930547.pdf.
- Dans, Doctors in the Movies.
- Linda Carroll. “Minority doctors in US residency programs routinely face racism.” (2018). Reuters HealthCare and Pharma.
- Toyese Oyeyemi and Janice Blanchard. “Medicine has a race problem — more silence won’t help.” (2021). The Hill.
- Carroll, “Minority doctors.”
- Oyeyemi, “Race problem.”
HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.