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You might want to take a seat for this next expert witness.  Not necessary for his court testimony itself, but for the simple initial identification of his qualifications.  Dr. Bennet Omaluís extensive list of credentials, degrees and fields of study run about the length of a late-night infomercial.  His astounding education and experience makes him an unimpeachable source of reference and his insight ensures the release of a murder suspect.

Itís all in a dayís work for the forensic pathologist.  When Omalu is not granting freedom to the falsely accused, one can find him in a Pittsburgh morgue.  Never at a loss for customers, Omaluís supervisor is frustrated by his unhurried, methodical technique.  To Bennet Omalu, death is not the end for the figure on his operating table; it is just another part of their journey, and being able to accurately report on the manner of death is Omaluís way of granting peace not only to the deceased, but to their loved ones.  Omalu begins his autopsies by gently caressing the head of the departed and asks them to help him understand the reason for their passing.  The respect he shows to the person on the slab, referring to them as ďpatients,Ē discarding cutting implements instead of reusing them, ordering lengthy batteries of tests instead of the Ďwrap it up quickí approach of his coworkers, infuriates them.  Their frustration rolls off the manís back, as Omaluís vision of what he is doing is clear, guided by the teachings of his other frequent locale.  Omaluís Christian faith is as important to him as his education, and he is a well-liked figure in his church.  For the Nigerian-born immigrant, there is no division between science and religion, they are parts of the same whole and each makes him who he is.

Still, not being the most popular guy at work means a lot of weekend shifts, which is how it happens that Bennet Omalu meets Mike Webster.  The Pittsburgh Steelersí Hall of Famer has become one of Omaluís patients at the young age of fifty, at the end a long, tragic journey that found the player struggling with depression and mental illness, unsuccessful self-medication, and losing all his trophies and money.  Having no previous interest in the sport, Omalu receives a crash course in the religious-like zeal of the American football fan.  Suddenly, the work before him takes on a gravity heís never experienced as his superiors pressure Omalu away from his usual meticulousness to pass the football hero through with no controversy.  Would it were that easy, but Omaluís detection of extreme abnormalities in Websterís brain compel the examiner to seek further.  His investigation, funded by his own personal savings, reveal a heretofore undiscovered condition called CTE {chronic traumatic encephalopathy}, wherein the cells of the brain essentially cannibalise each other after repeated head trauma such as that suffered during an average professional football playersí career.

The amazing revelation is one nobody seems to want to hear.  It places the onus to stop the circumstances where such trauma - akin to being hit with a sledgehammer over and over, Omalu explains - squarely at the foot of the multibillion dollar titan called the National Football League.  The very idea that football could be hurting its players and even killing them, is a threat not only to the NFL, but to one of Americaís great pastimes.  With so much to lose, the NFL begins an all-out assault on Bennet Omalu to discredit him and his findings after they are published, using tactics that would get them thrown out of any league for foul play.  They attack those closest to Omalu, using the FBI to disrupt the lives of his supporters, all to force the pathologist to rescind his discovery.  What chance does this earnest Nigerian man, whose only desire in life was to share in the American Dream, have against this ugliest side of US capitalism?

This is not the first time Will Smith has portrayed a living American hero, but itís possibly the first time that the current events around the filmís release have altered to make that subject and his story even more notable than mightíve been originally intended.

As if Concussionís initial story of the backlash against the discoverer of a life-threatening condition by that conditionís main perpetrator wasnít gripping enough, these past few months in American politics have added an undeniable subtext to Bennet Omaluís identity as an immigrant and his place in our country.  Recent world events have conspired to enflame an already-fraught discussion about immigration in this country from those who feel there should be no discussion and no immigration at all.  Concussion is an ostensibly familiar tale of a conglomerate and its supporters trying to kill the messenger, despite his message being a life-saving one.  That Omalu is someone in the perilous situation of being a guest in this country adds to the weight of what he stands to lose, and that vulnerability changes the tone and sharpens our perspective.  The fact that Omalu begins his odyssey with no sense of the magnitude of US football, nor the fans who will attack him for his tidings like rabid dogs, is an important aspect of the character.  There is no way Omalu could have ever dreamed of the fight before him.

Will Smith brilliantly portrays the utter bewilderment of a man who might have rightly expected his discoveries to bring a sense of relief or gratitude from those affected by it, but instead finds himself ostracised and persecuted.  In an Oscar-nom-worthy turn, Smith imparts a grace to Omalu that is never didactic or plaster-saintly, while writer/director Peter Landesmann doesnít hedge away from the essential connection between the doctor and his Christianity.  That faith, along with the love of his adoring wife, Prema, and her unwavering belief in her man, serve as Omaluís sole support as he watches everything he worked so hard for crumble before him.  Nothing seems to shake Omalu quite as deeply as the idea that eventually he and Prema will be deported, as his only desire is for his children to be born in America.

The love story between Omalu and Prema {played with charm and gentle strength by Gugu Mbatha-Raw} is a ray of light as his situation darkens.  Thrown together as two Nigerian immigrants who shared a faith and church, Premaís sweet seduction of the workaholic Omalu is patently adorable, as she shows him a world beyond his microscope.  His romantic gestures in return as they plan their life together are entirely, heart-warmingly ďawwĒ-inspiring.

The secondary love story between Bennet Omalu and the United States is equally enthralling, as heís been enamored with the American Dream for as long as he can remember.  Part of what gives him the courage to fight back when the NFL, media and fans step on his neck and threaten all he has, is his conviction that this country is a place where a voice can be heard despite opposition, where truth and righteousness can win against the odds, and part of the filmís refreshing message is that heís absolutely right.  Sometimes, it takes a new pair of eyes to show us the beauty thatís been here all along.

By the filmís end, I kept thinking how very glad I was that nobody had blocked Bennet Omalu from becoming part of this country, and wondered how many other Bennet Omalus we could stand to lose if we give in to the politics of hate and fear.

Powerful, inspiring, and wonderfully acted, Concussion could not be more appropriate viewing during this Christmas season, or at this moment in our world.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec 23rd, 2015
 

For more information about CTE, or to support Dr. Omalu's important research, including his work toward a cure for the condition, please click HERE to visit the Bennet Omalu Foundation website.

 

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