‘Code Black’: behind the scenes in L.A. emergency room

Code Black details the work done by doctors, nurses and interns in one of the country’s busiest emergency rooms
Code Black details the work done by doctors, nurses and interns in one of the country’s busiest emergency rooms

Two years ago I penned an all too brief single paragraph recommendation for The Waiting Room, an outstanding documentary about the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the East Bay’s primary trauma center and public health care facility. The film deservedly ended up being shortlisted in 2013 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Documentary, but ultimately didn’t make the final cut.

If you were as impressed as I was by The Waiting Room, you’ll get similar mileage from Code Black, a new medical documentary opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood next week, on Friday, July 18. Shot in and around Los Angeles County Hospital – like Highland, a publicly funded facility — the film details the work done by doctors, nurses and interns in one of the country’s busiest emergency rooms.

Built in 1930, L.A. County broke new ground by opening its own emergency department in 1970. The department was dubbed, somewhat cryptically, ‘C-booth’, and it’s here that the film opens amid chaotic scenes of milling crowds of medical and emergency personnel laboring intensely over patients. Despite appearances, however, the chaos obscured the unity of purpose developed by staff over years of working in an inadequate facility.

By the turn of the century it was clear that C-booth was no longer fit for purpose, it’s cramped quarters not even close to meeting modern regulations and affording its patrons absolutely no privacy or dignity. The County constructed a new up-to-code hospital adjacent to the old one, including spacious new emergency facilities.


Unfortunately, with the new building came new rules and responsibilities: no longer would federal requirements put in place in 1996 by HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) be waived as in C-booth days. Now emergency personnel in L.A. County would have to adjust to modern life’s penchant for paper-pushing and performance metrics.

Directed by Weill College Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Ryan McGarry – who learned his trade in C-booth – Code Black examines the fallout resulting from this significant professional and cultural change. Physicians used to having free reign in the emergency room were forced to adapt to scores of forms and rules that, for better or worse, delayed or impeded caregiving.

At 81 minutes in length, the film feels somewhat lacking, especially during a sequence in which doctors and nurses brainstorm and implement a plan to speed up service to those in the waiting room – many of whom wait 15-20 hours to see a health care professional. According to the film, their plan did indeed cut waiting times substantially, but details are lacking and it all comes across as a slightly magical result.

Withal, Code Black provides a neat summary of the frustrations and contradictions inherent to modern American healthcare while also offering a refreshingly upbeat encomium to L.A. County public health workers. Southland taxpayers should be very proud of what they see here: public servants providing care and comfort to the least privileged among us, and doing so with fierce dedication.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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