Service to Man

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
Service to Man Movie Poster Image
Medical school drama about racism has cursing, violence.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 92 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

If people were color-blind and accepting of the differences of others, the world could be a better place. You have to walk in another man's (or woman's) shoes to really understand the other person's suffering. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Michael can't please his demanding father and starts to learn how to be his own man. Eli wants to earn a good living as a doctor, but gradually sees how it would be better to use his skills to serve people in need. Black and white students, initially hostile to one another, begin to drop their prejudices and befriend each other. A professor helps a student cheat on an exam. While the student decides not to cheat at the last moment, he accidentally leaves information about the exam where others find it, causing a scandal at the school. Medical school professors try to instill in students a sense of greater purpose and a dedication to service to others. Students buy jewelry that has come off of cadavers.

Violence

Students protest civil rights violations in the South; police arrest them and drag them to jail. Police place the white protester in a cell alone, take black protesters elsewhere to beat them. Two black students give a white student a black eye for snitching. A Southern highway cop stops a black man in a car, cites him for a broken tail light, then goes behind the car and smashes the tail light. A mixed-race couple is politely ignored by a white restaurant hostess while white couples are seated. A black student shoves a white student and says, "Watch it, white boy." Eli is making a house call in a black neighborhood the night MLK is shot. His black classmates drive out to rescue him from the possibility of vengeful violence. A white man moves to kiss a black woman in public and she asks if he wants to "get us both locked up." 

Sex

Girls from Fiske College visit. A guy says, "Can I have one?" A woman rejects a suitor she thinks of as a little brother, not wanting to risk a lifelong friendship for "a few nights of sweaty physical passion." A white man moves to kiss a black woman in public and she asks if he wants to "get us both locked up." Medical students deliver the baby of a 14-year-old girl in the back of a car.
 

Language

"F--k," "s--t," "hell," "ass," "darkie," "bitch," "fart," "jerk off," and "screw."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. It's implied that two students are high.
 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Service to Man is based on a true story about a white student who attends a largely black medical school in the South of the 1960s. Black and white students clash and act on preconceived biases. Police treat blacks unfairly and racism is openly displayed. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "hell," "darkie," and "bitch." Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. It's implied that two students are high. A white man moves to kiss a black woman in public and she asks if he wants to "get us both locked up." Medical students deliver the baby of a 14-year-old girl in the back of a car.

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What's the story?

In SERVICE TO MAN, Eli Rosenberg (Morgan Auld) arrives at Meharry in Nashville from Brooklyn, New York -- one of only two white guys at the largely black medical school. Black students resent him immediately. One justifies his antipathy by explaining that Eli is taking up a black student's spot. Eli starts to learn something about his own white privilege, even as he experiences anti-Semitism, and how he's lucky enough to be in a position to help others if he can get past his own selfishness. Black students, including the brilliant Michael Dubois (Christopher Livingston) and the seemingly sinister Garrison (Leopold Manswell), express immediate hostility, not so much because they hate whites but because they recognize how clueless the whites are to the true terrors of racial prejudice in the deep South. Eli initially doesn't understand the complexities of the situation, believing somehow that in 1967 Tennessee, segregation laws have legislated away deeply rooted bias and violence. It isn't until Eli and his black date are snubbed by management at an Italian restaurant, and when he's merely thrown in jail while black men are beaten for the same transgression, that his eyes start to open to the reality of what black life is like in the South. As Michael struggles to break free from his unappreciative and overbearing father and Eli tries to find purpose in life, both come to appreciate each other and work together in harmony. A janitor suggests a floundering med student make himself useful in the emergency room. When the student is sent to make a house call in a poor black neighborhood, he sees how desperately his services are needed. He starts to see his own selfishness. By the time a white professor tries to help him cheat, he has grown enough to decide not to.

Is it any good?

This movie does a perfectly serviceable job of telling a story that needs to be told, even as it evokes other similar movies about prejudice and bigotry. Think Hidden Figures meets School Ties. Service to Man flips the usual racial bias scenario. Instead of a black student suffering at a mostly white medical school of the 1960s, the focus is on a white Jewish guy from New York negotiating hostility from students and faculty at a largely black Southern med school. But that clever idea suggests an equivalency so false as to belittle the systemic and widespread oppression America has waged against people of color for centuries. A white guy feeling outnumbered at a black school seems petty and inconsequential in comparison.  He can step outside into the white world any time he wants and leave behind the conflict, something black students can't do. It's as if violence and racism against blacks is only important in so far as it raises the consciousness of a previously blissfully ignorant Jewish guy from New York. A far more interesting movie could be made about the struggles of the black students at this medical school, who are not only trying to earn medical degrees but also trying to help the needy and stand up against racism.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Service to Man might have been told differently had it emphasized the struggles of a black student over the struggles of a white student.

  • Why do you think the professors and dean emphasize the need to give service to others? What does it mean to put the needs of others above your own needs?

  • Do you think that exposure to people different from ourselves helps us understand how similar people are? Does that exposure make us less afraid of others? Why?

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