I wasn’t prepared, mentally or emotionally, for Code Black. The documentary, about County Hospital in Los Angeles, and the emergency doctors who work there, is literally a gut-wrenching portrait of the small square footage of space, we’re told, where more people have died and been saved than anywhere else in the United States. It’s a 50 by 25 foot section of the County ER called “c-booth.” I’m not sure how verifiable that statistic is, but the point is clear as we physically see it from the get-go, as bodies are gurneyed in and out in a flurry of blood and scalpels. Code Black just opened in New York City, and will be rolling out to theaters in select cities across the U.S.

The director, County ER doctor-in training Ryan McGarry, decided to pick up a camera and document what was happening around him, and he shot film over four years. This is a first-hand account; we’re there as the ailing are treated, and we see the absolute chaos that was County before a new County hospital was erected. McGarry also interviews his peers (and himself, which is a bit awkward) who give frank assessments of their work and the system of medicine that they are a part of.

As crazy as things got on the popular ER drama, that show doesn’t hold a candle to the insanity that happened at “C-booth,” where the worst trauma cases were taken. The horde of doctors and nurses and EMT’s that surround a dying man looks like what would happen if you dropped the guy in the middle of a crowded Tokyo train.

But Code Black is more than verite; this is a doc in which we are seeing historical context and change in medicine as it is happening. The old County hospital is replaced by the new one, and McGarry casts a critical eye on all of the protocols and paperwork that threaten to overwhelm the doctors. He’s nostalgic for the craziness for the old County where there was a method to the madness, but he seems to be aware that things couldn’t remain that way.

I don’t know who wants to go see a visceral portrait of the current state of medicine in a theater, but they should, especially policy makers and anyone who gives money to Cedar-Sinai and other hot-shot hospitals. County is one of the few public hospitals, and so it has to serve everyone. It caters to the lowest of the low, and it needs all the support it can get.

As good as Code Black is, I just hope McGarry doesn’t let that go to his head. Clearly, we need doctors like him on the front lines practicing medicine.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen