John Q, Our Flawed Origins, and the Value of Speaking Up

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I was ten when I first thought about single-payer healthcare.

Not in those terms, of course. But I had a very clear picture of what I thought was a fair system. And it’s all thanks to Denzel Washington.

Let me explain.

Denzel won his second Oscar for Training Day, in 2001. Being a two-time Oscar winner put him in rarefied air: only 42 people have ever done this, and until Mahershala Ali won two in the last three years, Denzel was the only Black person to ever win multiple acting Oscars.

In the almost two decades since, Denzel has become more selective with his roles, acting more in theater and in independent films, while turning to directing. Perhaps most notably, he’s committed himself to adapting the entire Pittsburgh Cycle, arguably the greatest literary collection in American history.

But projects stack temporally, so Training Day didn’t release until Denzel had already filmed and wrapped another project, one almost universally panned by critics upon its release despite praise for his acting.

Without spoiling the film, I’ll summarize the premise: Denzel is John Q. Archibald, a blue-collar laborer who finds out that his son has a rare heart condition that will require a transplant. But since his job recently dropped him from full-time to part-time, the insurance he has will not cover the heart transplant ($250,000 to have the procedure and a $75,000 down payment to get on the donor list). When church and community fundraising fall well short, John takes the ER of the local hospital hostage, demanding that his son be placed on the list.

The movie was widely panned, with only a 23% score on Rotten Tomatoes. I watched it again recently, and I understand why critics thought that its message was absurdly overplayed. It keeps on coming, with even small choices made to manipulate you into identifying with Denzel’s character and his family, with throwaway lines of dialogue here and there that lay the message bare for the world to see, rather than letting the viewer make one or two of the connections for themselves. Take a scene in the middle of the movie, for example, where John and the hostages are eating vending machine snacks and talking. Here’s the script:

JOHN: How could the doctors not pick it up?
DR. TURNER: He might not have been tested thoroughly enough.
JOHN: Why not? [pause]
NURSE: You have an HMO, right?
JOHN: Yeah.
NURSE: Well, there’s your answer. HMOs pay their doctors not to test. That’s their way of keeping costs down. Let’s say Mike did need additional testing, and insurance says they won’t cover them? The doctor keeps his mouth shut, and come Christmas, the HMO sends the doctor a fat-ass bonus check.
[…]
JOHN: You telling me these doctors may have known what was wrong with my son and they could have treated him all along?
DR. TURNER: Who knows. I don’t know, John.
LESTER: Don’t take this personal, Doc, but y’all a bunch of god damn crooks.
DR. TURNER: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
JULIE: What about that thing you guys take?
DR. TURNER: The thing?
JULIE: Yeah, that promise, what do they call it?
STEVE: It’s called the Hippocratic Oath.
LESTER: More like the hypocritical oath. How’s it go, Doc? I solemnly swear to take care of the sick, damn-near dying, unless they ain’t got major medical. Something like that?
DR. TURNER: You’ve got it perfectly. That’s it.
NURSE: It’s funny, but it’s not that far from the truth, okay? This shit happens all the time. Paramedics bring in some accident victim, and when the big boys in accounting find out they can’t pay, they send ‘em packing.
JULIE: Hospitals can’t turn people away.
STEVE: Isn’t there laws against that?
NURSE: Yeah. There’s laws, but there’s ways around those laws. The only thing we have to do is stabilize them, and after that, we’re off the hook and you know it.
DR. TURNER: That’s not how it works.
NURSE: That’s exactly how it works. Maybe not up there on the fifth floor, but in here, if you don’t have any money, you get a Band-Aid, a foot in the ass, and you’re out the door.

(I’d just like to separately note that the nurse in this scene is played by Kevin Connolly, who is primarily known for playing E on Entourage; Dr. Turner is played by James Woods, a noted purveyor of George Soros conspiracy theories. The two main police characters are played by Ray Liotta and Robert Duvall. You can’t stare at Hollywood too closely, or things just break down.)

Even on the page, it feels like a lot. And this isn’t the most of it. Seemingly out of nowhere, an adoring crowd arrives outside the police perimeter at the hospital for the second half of the movie, cheering and booing every development between John and the police. Even after the hostage situation ends, the film places multiple thumbs on the scale in the closing scenes and montages, trying to make us feel what the film insists that we, as the spectators, should feel.

And honestly, the underlying idea here could easily have been made into a legitimately good piece of film. Maybe not a great one, but one that could have generated a little more discussion. It’s easy to look back and say, well, maybe 2002 was the wrong time for this film to come about.

But you know who took the film’s sledgehammer of a message to heart in 2002?

A ten-year-old kid.

A ten-year-old kid dragged along to the film by a parent excited to see Denzel Washington act.

I was originally going to use John Q to talk about our conception of punishment, a topic that it was probably ill-suited for. I was somewhat grateful, really, to reframe this within the context of JK Rowling’s very-not-good tweet from last week, confirming what many of us had suspected (or even made up our minds about) about her anti-trans views for some time. I don’t necessarily fault folks who hadn’t yet heard the rumblings; we’ve had a lot to care about over the last several years…but anybody who still has doubts now is simply being willfully ignorant.

In the aftermath of the tweet, I talked a lot with people about whether the Harry Potter books were now off limits, particularly as online discourse started to frame some of Rowling’s creative choices in a new light. These ranged from the obviously cringeworthy (hook-nosed goblins as bankers, a solitary east Asian–coded character named Cho Chang) to the slightly stretchier (your mileage may vary regarding an association with the only Irish-coded character, Seamus Finnigan, and things blowing up).

But while the evidence against it is significant, there is also at least one thing to recommend the book series: people in studies who identified with Harry Potter tended to empathize more with folks in different life situations (particularly refugees and gay/lesbian folks, although the study ironically did not consider trans/non-binary folx). And what are we to make of the fact that an entire generation of readers has some emotional connection to this series?

I would argue that financially supporting the creator of a work, though, is far different than understanding that a work had an impact on your life. My John Q rabbit hole led me to recall that while I kept up with the news through osmosis, I didn’t take an affirmative interest in politics until my parents started watching Bill Maher in the evenings. Maher, of course, is an Islamophobe, a death penalty supporter, and a vaccine skeptic who continues to get by because he pretends to mock everybody equally. He has repeatedly shown himself to be irredeemable and not nearly worth the vitriol he directs at the wealthy and the powerful.

But Maher being bad, and my refusal to support him now, doesn’t somehow undo the fact that he was vital to me becoming who I am today. As a confused teenager, I was ignorant of a lot of the injustices around me, and while Maher didn’t set me right on many of them, he led me to realize that entire worlds were out there that I hadn’t been considering.

Nor should I be trying to undo the fact of Maher’s influence. Not every association that you’ve had in the past needs to be a point of pride, and I don’t think we should give in to any narrative that requires us to hide the flaws that we were forged in. The entire world is an exercise in perpetuated flaws, and breaking the cycle is going to require honesty.

We might as well start with the things we hold dear. We know them better than anything else, or at least we should if we are to credibly stand for anything. Plus, it’s good practice for the efforts that are still needed to drag society to a fairer, more inclusive, and less cruel place.

So, other than a pile of imminent self-reckoning, where does this leave us? For me, it cycles back to one thing: You absolutely never know who you could impact by sticking your neck out there. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the perfect messenger or not; it’s worth trying to get the message through. Perhaps you’ll be judged on your flaws, the way that Rowling is now. But in the ideal world we’re trying to build, it won’t invalidate the merits of what your message is, and if people have gotten that message from you, that change can indeed be lasting.

Not all of us are going to be able to write a script that gets made into a movie. Not all of us are Denzel Washington and will get butts in the seats. But it does strike me that in the comments of almost every clip on Youtube from John Q, there’s a frank discussion (as much as Youtube comments can be called discussions) about just how far behind the United States is on healthcare. People legitimately finding out that their healthcare plan is an HMO and might be incentivized to leave them out in the cold. People being able to learn that other countries don’t have a system like ours. People comprehending how deep the rot really goes. If we’re going to get to single-payer, this process needs to repeat and build off of itself. That’s on us.

And while the possible ripple effects of speaking on the internet and on social media is rather clear, it’s not just there. We’re in social settings all the time. We have family members we disagree with. We have friends who make us uncomfortable every so often.

Perhaps December 26 is the wrong time to post this, right after a bunch of family gatherings where many of us have likely had the opportunity to push back on something unsavory someone else says, the opportunity to set an example for somebody else watching, listening, waiting to see another viewpoint.

But if 20 years ago, at the height of the Democratic Party’s dive to the center, some studio head was willing to green light a movie about the fundamental flaws in the healthcare system, then this is as good a time as any to talk about our own flaws and our own power to take them on.

You never know who will take notice.

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