Code Black

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Code Black Movie Poster Image
Powerful but bloody documentary about emergency medicine.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 88 minutes

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Positive Messages

Code Black asserts that everyone should be entitled to healthcare, regardless of their socio-economic or citizenship status. The doctors stress that county hospitals aren't just for undocumented immigrants but for everyone: the working poor, the temporarily out of work, the fully insured who got sick nearby or wanted a world-class trauma center, etc. The doctors make it clear that they know they could be making more money working in private practice, but they feel their work -- as hard as it is -- is worthwhile since they're truly making a difference in the community.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The featured ER doctors all chose to work in emergency medicine at a county hospital rather than pursue more profitable careers in private practice. They're overworked, but they still rise to the occasion and realize that they have a higher calling than just to treat the financially comfortable or insured. They're also open and honest about how healthcare regulations make it hard for them to spend a lot of time with patients because of how much paperwork and bureaucracy is required for each case.


The emergency room is a bloody, graphic place. Some of the patients the E.R. doctors see are victims of violence and are shown with multiple gun wounds and other major injuries. Some die. People are shown in varying degrees of undress, even completely nude while being worked on by the doctors. There's a lot of blood on the bodies, gurneys, and on the floor of the emergency room.


Non-sexual nudity when patients are being treated.


The doctors interviewed in the documentary curse infrequently, saying things like "f--k," "f--king," "s--t," "dicking around," etc.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The doctors are briefly shown drinking socially while out at dinner or at someone's house for a get-together.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Code Black is an unflinching documentary about a group of resident doctors who work in the Los Angeles County Hospital's world-renowned emergency room. Although there's a smattering of strong language (the occasional "s--t" or  "f--k"), what can really make the movie difficult to watch at times are the real-life scenes of bloody and extremely injured patients, a couple of whom die, despite the medical team's best efforts. There's some non-sexual nudity and a bit of social drinking as well. Teens interested in becoming doctors or nurses will be enlightened by the movie's position that the most challenging job in medicine might also arguably be the most rewarding.

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What's the story?

CODE BLACK centers around a group of residents who work at Los Angeles County Hospital's legendary E.R., known for being the birthplace of emergency medicine in the United States. The film's title refers to the most urgent state of the emergency room, when the hospital staff realizes that the emergency room is overflowing and there's not a minute to waste. First-time director Ryan McGarry follows the doctors in the old E.R., famous for "C-Booth" -- a 25-foot-by-20-foot trauma bay reserved for the most severe cases -- and then in the hospital's new structure and E.R., which is more spacious but still under-staffed and over capacity (patients routinely wait 18 to 20 hours if they're not level-1, "about to die" cases). In thorough interviews, the junior and senior residents take turns narrating and explaining the triumphs and tragedies of working in a county E.R.

Is it any good?

McGarry's film is simultaneously inspiring, powerful, disturbing, and heartbreaking. It's inspiring, because these talented physicians have chosen to work in emergency medicine at a county hospital, when it would have been so much more financially profitable to join a private hospital or practice. It's powerful, because these doctors see patients at their most vulnerable, often on the brink of death, but only for a limited amount of time. It's disturbing, because the doctors are candid about how healthcare is a broken bureaucracy in the United States, and it's heartbreaking, because in today's tough economy, the county E.R. sees so many patients with preventable diseases and ailments that escalate because they don't have general practitioners to care for them on a regular basis.

McGarry doesn't shy away from showing the dirtier, chaotic side of emergency medicine. But the doctors narrating the film reveal that, while the flurry of literally bloody activity in an E.R. might seem chaotic, it's a finely choreographed dance between professionals highly attuned to both the patients and one another's abilities. Despite the many obstacles -- bureaucratic and practical -- involved with offering the kind of care these doctors hope to provide, these trauma specialists prove that one of the toughest jobs in medicine is also one of the most fulfilling.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why medical dramas -- real or fictional -- are so compelling. How do documentaries about an emergency room compare to fictional medical shows or movies?

  • What does one doctor mean when he talks about healthcare transcending politics and class? Why should everyone have a place they can be treated for health problems?

  • What did the LA County hospital gain with the building of its new facility? What did it lose?

Movie details

  • In theaters: June 20, 2014
  • On DVD or streaming: February 24, 2015
  • Director: Ryan McGarry
  • Studio: Long Shot Factory
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run time: 88 minutes
  • MPAA rating: NR
  • Last updated: March 13, 2020

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