Sunday, 7 February 2016
One of the best films of 2015 is called Concussion, and it stars Will Smith (the famous African-American actor) as a Nigerian (now-American) doctor, Bennet Omalu, who worked as a coroner's assistant doing forensic pathology in America's ageing rustbelt at the start of this century.
In a year when the Academy infamously declined to nominate any Black actors in their four categories, it is startling to report that this extraordinary performance from Smith - which sees him barely resemble his usual self - was overlooked in favour of the hammy ham-fisted work in Trumbo, for instance. Concussion, however, is more than an opportunity to observe, yet again, America's ongoing cultural and racial splits and struggles.
Instead, it is a film as terrifying in its ways as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though based in real science this time; and as shocking and revelatory as The Insider, Michael Mann's late 90s story of whistleblowing and Big Tobacco. This time, the villain is so insidious, so powerful, so endemic, so ingrained, the disease cannot be cut out with any number of knives. The peril is ongoing. The last time a final shot of an American film was this powerful was perhaps The Hurt Locker, and even that has less impact - without giving it away, it leaves our hero facing, half-bemused, half-stunned, the intractable idiocy of human nature.
The facts are now basically established (as late as 2015 a major study confirmed Dr Omalu's discovery) - playing football professionally leads to massive and chronic brain trauma, consistent with a disease that Dr Omalu himself named about ten years ago, CTE, and which the football authorities in America have since attempted to deny even exists. In short, the brain lies in the skull (the brain case) in a liquid, and has no "seatbelt". The impact of tackles in football means that a person playing the sport for ten to twenty years might suffer the equivalent of 70,000 blows to the head with a hammer.
Almost as improbably farcical as that may sound, the disease triggered involves the growth of fatty tissue across the brain - leading to anger, despair, violence, suicide, and loss of self. In short, CTE first deprives the athlete of their sense of self, and then drives them to madness and terrible suffering. It is Alzheimer's for healthy men in their 40s and 50s. New studies show that about 28% of all former NFL players are likely to die of the disease within the next few decades - that is, thousands of otherwise famous, respected, healthy, and wealthy stars of America's most lucrative and popular televised sporting event - football.
The horror of this film is that it is both real and symbolic of other societal blindness and self-inflicted wounds (such as mass gun crime) - the hard science is now there, and yet, as recently as the other day none other than maverick Lady Gaga, tasked with singing the anthem at the looming Super Bowl, described it as a great honour. Football is a killing field. She should know better. But has been shown the money.
Millions of American children and young people are encouraged to play it at local, state and national level. It serves as a metaphor for American strategic might. It generates billions of dollars for companies and people of influence every year. Even Concussion - no doubt aware of the oddball iconoclasm of its message - shys away from saying the mega-popular game should be stopped, though Dr Omalu in the film thinks it should be allowed to die out, as a barbaric throwback to a more stupid age. He has conceded it has beauty, but he also is the first person (in the world it must be said) to publically argue, at great risk to personal safety and career, that football generates a deadly disease. About 98% of recently examined former footballer's brains had CTE.
Over the next few decades, thousands of American athletes may well die, or suffer horribly, from a completely avoidable disease; instead, they will "play" a "game" that will smash their brain around their skull thousands and thousands and thousands of times. Would you let your child hit their head a hundred times a day with a hammer? Is it enough to say the players now "know" the risks (for decades hidden away in dusty industry reports) - the pressure on young men , especially from poorer backgrounds, to play, means only a few will be able to resist the pressures and avoid the risks.
We call upon writers, artists, poets and thinkers to see this film, review the evidence, and then decide how vocal they wish to be about this issue. Meanwhile, Concussion is a great film, and, just as Selma was avoided last year by the Academy, it seems there is a pattern of ignoring great and vital stories being told in film about Black people of genius.
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