“There’s too much God in it,” Ben Carson remembers someone telling him.
Filming had already started on the TNT movie about his life, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” when one of the major sponsors suggested toning down some parts about his Christian faith. There were concerns about alienating a general audience.
“I just said, ‘No problem, you can take it out,’” Carson recalled in a recent interview with The Daily Caller. “‘But take me out too, because it won’t be about me.’”
“And then they backed off.”
Based on his 1996 autobiography with the same title, the uplifting TV movie tells the story of Carson’s path from inner-city Detroit to the Johns Hopkins operating table, where he first successfully separated twins conjoined at the head.
The 2009 movie has helped make Carson, now running as an outsider for the Republican nomination for president, famous: it has played in schools, churches and on the Black Entertainment Television network (BET). Hundreds of thousands of DVDs have been sold. It streams on Netflix.
It could also help explain in part why Carson, who has never run for office, is polling in second-place in evangelical-heavy Iowa and in third place nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Before the movie deal was inked, Carson said he talked with as many as 15 different production companies. He wanted to make sure the film stayed true to life and didn’t take artistic liberties.
Carson was finally satisfied: “TNT and Sony said they would do it accurately, and that they would consult with me in the process.”
“It turned out to be a two-edged sword, because they were always calling me,” Carson said with a laugh.
In an interview with TheDC, Dan Angel, the executive producer of Gifted Hands, said he made a promise to Carson. “I am going to tell your story from beginning to end and tell the truth. I’m not going to add anything.”
Carson was active during production: Angel said he visited the set in Detroit, spending time with actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played him.
“He would be there every step of the way whenever we needed to talk to him about reality checks,” Angel said of Carson. “We would have Cuba Gooding Jr. on the phone with him. And he gave complete access to his life, which is really important.”
Gooding, through agent Adam Schweitzer, declined to be interviewed.
But in a 2009 appearance on CBS, the actor praised Carson. “I always say about men like this: they’re like God’s tool,” Gooding said. “He’s really given him a gift and he’s touched so many people.”
Carson says he was satisfied with the finished product. “I thought they did a spectacular job. Cuba came and spent a couple days with me. He got a chance to sort of see how I talk and how I act.”
“I mean the idea that this amazing mom growing up in Detroit could raise two boys in the worst of conditions of poverty — you can imagine what the conditions were in the poorest town in America — and you would have any shot at coming out successful,” said Angel, the executive producer. “It’s the ultimate beating the odds story.”
Carson said his mother, Sonya Carson, also spoke with the filmmakers. “She had a number of conversations on the phone with Kimberly Elise, who plays her,” he said.
His mother remains in his life today, but her health has been declining.
Hours before Carson announced his entry into the presidential race this summer, he got a call that his mom, who has Alzheimer’s, was no longer eating or drinking.
“They basically just said, ‘this is the end,’” a soft-spoken Carson said. “Take her home. And let her die there. That’s news I got the day before the announcement.”
In what Carson thought might be their final goodbye, his family rushed to her bedside. His wife, Candy, played the violin while his kids were singing and reading verses from the Bible. Carson said supporters told him they were praying for her.
And to everyone’s surprise, she got better.
“She just all of a sudden bloomed,” he said. “She blossomed. And she was back, and she was better than she was before.”
As for the film, Carson said his mother was satisfied with how it turned out, even as it showed difficult times for her, including her bouts with depression.
“I’ll tell you, it takes a lot to make her happy,” Carson said with a laugh. “It says a lot for Kimberly.”
The film won a $100,000 Epiphany Prize for “most inspiring movie of 2009,” but not all the reviews were pretty.
“Carson comes across as the least intriguing person in his own story,” USA Today’s Robert Bianco wrote in a blistering review. “Indeed, anyone watching Gifted Hands may come away thinking it would have been wiser to make a film about his mother, who seems to be the true hero here.”
Brian Lowry complained in Variety that the film lacked suspense, writing “this is one of those viewing experiences that help remind you — more literally than most — why creating a feel-good TV movie isn’t brain surgery.”
But David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun praised the filmmakers for not excluding the tougher parts of Carson’s life.
“This hero is a flawed one with a temper that once led him as a teenager to stab a classmate and raise a hammer as if to strike his mother in a moment of rage,” Zurawik wrote. “Later, as a middle-aged man in crisis, he seemed to be on the verge of losing his nerve. These are not pretty moments, and Carson and the producers could have left them out or softened them. But to their credit – and our viewing pleasure – they didn’t.”
Asked if that stabbing scene is hard to watch today, Carson said: “It makes me grateful that I got over that period in my life. Because I used to get in a lot of trouble. I would go after people with bats, bricks. I was really pretty sick, I think.”
“I had such a bad temper,” he added. “And people who know me now have a hard time even believing it, because I’m so mild-mannered now. But it wasn’t always like that, that’s for sure.”
Angel, who stays in touch with Carson to this day, said he never got an inkling that the doctor would enter politics while making the film. “Never,” he said. “Never.”
“And what you have to understand and people don’t understand is this is a man, as I am, of God,” he said. “Who believes in prayer. Who believes in the power of prayer. He’s witnessed kid’s lives at his hands being saved.”
“And if he feels God is guiding him down a certain way,” Angel argued, “he will be obedient to that path no matter what the end result is.”