The importance of healthcare professionals, hospitals and access to medical treatment has never felt more important. In the past, some of us might have taken such things for granted. Not any more.
Today’s renewed focus on these fundamental issues makes the release of Joyce Marie Fitzpatrick and Brian Shackelford’s documentary, The Color Of Medicine: The Story Of The Homer G. Phillips Hospital, particularly timely.
The film examines the disparities in the medical treatment received by African Americans in the US and explores the history and the legacy of one iconic hospital - the Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St Louis, Missouri.
The Color Of Medicine is a powerful and poignant documentary. Comprehensive and incredibly well researched, it tells a story of great significance to the people of St Louis - over 2000 people turned out to watch the film's first screening at the city's Missouri History Museum.
Meanwhile, the documentary has been on quite a journey since its completion. It it has been screened both privately and at a variety of festivals and has attracted a global audience - unsurprising as it tells a story that is vitally important to anyone with an interest in civil rights and US history.
Fitzpatrick decided to make a film about the hospital after Dr Robinson - whose story is featured in the film and who lived across the street from Fitzpatrick’s childhood home in Indianapolis, Indiana - followed her on social media.
“He saw that I made documentaries and his daughter, Rebecca Robinson, reached out to me and asked if I could tell her father’s story,” Fitzpatrick explains. “Dr Robinson then sent me his blog called Uriah's Chronicles. It was so intriguing and interesting. Once we finished the documentary that we were working on, Sunshine, Noodles and Me, we delved head on into the Color Of Medicine.”
Fitzpatrick and Shackelford’s film contains a wealth of incredible detail. “I love history and I just delved into the records in St Louis looking for information,” says Fizpatrick. “Every time I spoke to one of the seniors who are featured in the film they would introduce me to another person - it was just an amazing journey.”
By the end of the process, the directors had eight hours of footage with interviews from over one hundred people. “It was overwhelming,” Fitzpatrick remembers. “Brian and I decided to start from the beginning. It was part of my mission to make sure that anyone who watched this documentary will walk away knowing who Homer G. Phillips was.”
As a result, The Color Of Medicine begins with some much appreciated context. We find out about The Ville, a fascinating African-American neighbourhood located in North St Louis. “You first have to understand the time period before we can tell you about the hospital and all of these amazing people,” says Shackelford. “This is what gave us our jumping off point.”
The film then introduces us to Homer G. Phillips himself. A lawyer with an interest in healthcare and a civil rights advocate, Phillips was fiercely anti-segregation. However, he also recognised the need for a medical facility to treat African Americans and so backed the development of a separate hospital located in The Ville.
Sadly, Phillips did not live to see the completion of this project - he was assassinated in 1931 in circumstances that are still something of a mystery. As a result of his support and in honour of his legacy, the new hospital was given his name.
The Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in 1937 and became one of the first US medical institutions to treat African Americans in a safe, hygienic and sterile environment. An incredibly impressive building, the hospital also became one of the few places in the country where African Americans were able to access the education and training to become physicians and nurses.
Fitzpatrick and Shackelford examine the hospital’s 40 year history - divinding it into decades and placing it within a wider context of what was happening in the US at the time. “It was so interesting and also heartbreaking in terms of what these medical professionals went through,” Fitzpatrick recalls.
The Color Of Medicine explores how, in the face of outrageous descrimination, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital became an inspirational, aspirational and optimistic place. The hospital was a centre of excellence boasting an incredibly high standard of care.
The importance of the hospital in the community - both for those who worked there and also for those who visited for medical treatment - is clear. The Color Of Medicine features a large number of interviews, giving people the time and space to tell their stories.
We hear from historians, educators, doctors and nurses. Their tales are fascinating and thought provoking. When the documentary moves into its final act - and explores the controversial closure of the hospital in 1979 - you feel the community’s heartbreak and loss.
“When the hospital was being shut down, the way that the community reacted is testament to the African American life experience,” comments Fitzpatrick. “Whenever we as a people gain momentum it is always being shut down. Everytime we had a private screening of the film, the audience would get emotional at this point.”
It is easy to understand why audiences have responded in this way. The stories told in The Color Of Medicine are deeply moving. They have also inspired more people to talk about their connection to the Homer G. Phillips Hospital. "We hope that this is the first in a series of stories that come out of this film,” says Shackelford. “We would like to continue this as a docuseries.”
For some, the latest chapter in the story of the hospital building is a welcome development. For others it is an outrage, a betrayal. Throughout their film, Fitzpatrick and Shackelford explore the nuance of their story - presenting us with a broad range of accounts and enabling us to come to our own conclusions.
One thing is clear, however. The story of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital deserves to be heard.