Concussion Tackles Difficult Issues, But Drops The Ball On The Portrayal Of Women

Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of movies; particularly sports movies that are not Cool Runnings, Major League, A League of Their Own or The Sandlot. But a few weeks ago when I was prepping for a lecture on ethics in sports discussed through pop culture, ignoring new-release Concussion was unfortunately not an option.

As a bioethicist, I went into the film with hopeful skepticism – sure, it was going to be cheesy and probably inaccurate in parts, but if it starts (or continues) a conversation on prevalence of head injuries in football, then at least it accomplishes something.

Concussion tells the story of a Pittsburgh pathologist who investigated and shed light on the epidemic of head injuries in professional football resulting in a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In the movie, Will Smith plays Will Smith with a Nigerian accent playing Dr. Benet Omalu (the pathologist in question), leading a cast of almost exclusively male characters who do manly things like medicine and football.

Yes, Concussion does raise important issues regarding ethics in sports and adds to what was already starting to be a robust national concussion discussion, but it also is set in a parallel universe where women are either accessories or nonexistent.

The primary/only female character with more than four lines is Prema Mutiso – a recently-arrived Kenyan nurse who might as well have appeared wearing a long white gown for her inevitable marriage to Bennet.

I know what you’re thinking: “This is a true story. We already knew they were getting married.” While that is accurate, some effort could have been made into developing what, in real life, was probably a significantly more interesting relationship.

Bennet meets Prema at church, after his pastor approaches him and informs him that she should move in with him. Just like that. (Is that what happens when you attend church? Should I start going?)

From the beginning, Prema speaks only in clichés and greeting card content, being human scaffolding and sounding board for Benet and saying things like “I can’t tell what you’re afraid of: what you’ll find or what you won’t.”

Then one night they went dancing. And everything changed.

They did not leave room for the Holy Spirit, so as the nuns at my high school could have predicted, that resulted in physical contact, and eventually in falling in love.

In addition to being an all-around disappointing portrayal of women, Concussion did not do justice to Prema. To begin with, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actor who portrays Prema, is incredibly talented and underutilized. She did the best that she could with the script she was given, and is more than capable of making this character multidimensional, but was not presented with that opportunity.

On top of that, Prema is a real person who exists in real life. Hollywood has a reputation of taking a true story and adding dramatic portrayals and situations to make it more interesting.. There is no possible way that the real Prema is less interesting than the movie version. Solely based on the fact that she is a nurse and an immigrant basically guarantees that she has some stories. The real-life Prema is undoubtedly smarter and far more multifaceted (i.e. has more than one facet) than the movie version and deserves better onscreen treatment.

Despite the attention paid to her husband, the real-life Prema has largely kept out of the spotlight. According to Jeanne Marie Laskas, who wrote the original GQ article on Bennet (which resulted in first a book, and then the movie) Prema was a vital part of his research, taking photos documenting his work as he examined brain samples from former football players, noting that this was “very valuable strategic thinking on Prema’s part.”

In one of the few scenes featuring Prema, she is driving and being followed by an unfamiliar car, and subsequently miscarries. While she is seen alongside Bennet crying in the hospital, after that initial scene, the audience is only privy to his emotional reaction, and the psychological impact the end of the pregnancy had on him. Once she was no longer needed to house his future child, Prema’s role in the miscarriage narrative was cut short. A request from BuzzFeed to speak with Concussion’s director Peter Landesman to discuss the portrayal of miscarriage in the film went unanswered.

Most reviews I’ve read of Concussion do not mention the pathetic characterization of Prema or utter lack of other female characters (with the notable exception of Lindsey Adler’s review on BuzzFeed). In a film about such a stereotypically masculine sport, it’s hardly a surprise that women are barely present in the story, but the fact that this lack of representation doesn’t even register with those reviewing the film points to an even larger problem with movies.

The only thing I wrote down during the movie was “vaginize football” – an accusation made by a football fan via a threatening phone call to Bennet – which was easily the best line of the movie. Undoubtedly this was meant as an insult, but as we all know, vaginas are tough as hell, so really, “vaginizing football” would involve players taking even more of a beating than they already do – which, as it turns out, would result in more concussions.