Sunday, April 17, 2016

Brain, Brain - Go Away, Come Again Another Day

by Drew Martin
The movie Concussion may have been snubbed at this year's Oscars but it will not be forgotten, neither will Will Smith's performance. I like Smith from what I know of him but his performances up to this point were always a bit smug for me. Not so with this role. He does not mimic Dr. Bennet Omalu, but creates a believable character so much so that I often forgot it was Smith I was watching, and not a passionate Nigerian doctor. That's always my barometer for good acting; when the actor can act past him/herself. True of actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Kate Blanchett. Not true of people such as Tom Cruise, Matt Damien, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, etc.

Concussion was actually quite similar to the film which won the Oscar this year for best film, Spotlight, which I posted about last month. The energy of both films is generated from the pursuit of knowledge and overcoming the obstacles that get in the way.

Smith's not being nominated for his role fueled #oscarssowhite tweets, and while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long way to go to achieve diversity, I think this film was pushed aside for other reasons, inherent in the plot. With the applause for Spotlight, it is apparent that it is fine to attack the church, but Concussion threatens an even holier American industry - the National Football League (NFL).

The difference between Spotlight and Concussion is, however, that Spotlight dates itself and plays off the priest molestation of minors as something uncovered and identified. Concussion is alive and kicking, and the real fallout is in the future. Exactly a year ago the NFL settled (without an admission of wrongdoing) a 2011 class action lawsuit from former players for more than $1 billion over the next 65 years to 20,000 NFL retirees. This was directly related to Omalu's work, who first discovered c
hronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002, published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005, and presented the details to the dismissive NFL in 2007. Last week New York Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson announced his retirement and cited the movie Concussion as the impetus.

While the film is titled Concussion, and such obvious head trauma has always been a concern for high-impact athletes, Omalu's work shows that CTE is actually the result of repetitive hits to the head that may not cause a concussion. 
It is a form of tauopathy, a progressive degenerative disease previously called dementia pugilistica (DP). This "punch-drunk" condition was initially found in boxers but is present in all athletes who experience repeated brain trauma, which causes a build-up of tau protein. Other tauopathies include Alzheimer’s disease.

If the NFL feels singled out here, which they certainly are, the film also takes on a certain anti-intellectual side of America. Omalu came from Nigeria where, his character in the movie explains, America is considered a notch just below heaven. He holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications, has a broad range of interests. Despite this he is labeled in the film (as in real life) as uneducated, and voodoo. Omalu is indeed a brilliant man, who Smith potrays with keenness. You cannot help but appreciate a coroner who speaks to his dead subjects with respect and even throws away the surgical knives after each autopsy.

The family name, Omalu, is a shortened form of the surname, Onyemalukwube, which translates to "he/she who knows, speak."