Early in Code Black, a hospital tech quietly moves in behind a line of doctors, mopping up the blood of a patient who’s died. It’s an unavoidable symbol, and in the current climate of American health care, it’s no surprise that Code Black—directed by Dr. Ryan McGarry, a former physician at L.A. County—feels like a personal call to arms.
At first, the documentary chronicles the shift in the dynamics of the emergency room of L.A. County Hospital after it moves to a new building and leaves behind the legendary trauma center of C Booth, a cramped cubicle with a death rate high enough to make it, foot for foot, the deadliest space in America. But with the demands of red tape and hopeless crowds, Code Black tackles what it means to be a public hospital at a crossroads in the American health care system. The ER serves as primary care for so many that overwhelming numbers can prevent efficient or even common-sense care. Amid enthusiastic doctors, some mentions of privacy requirements “killing the relationship” feel brushed aside, especially since the opinion isn’t universal—a balance neatly struck by editor and writer Joshua Altman. But there’s no denying the evocative waiting-room shots—and in a summer flush with horror films, the most chilling movie moment might be hearing patient wait times top out at 24 hours as someone scrolls through patients whose potentially life-threatening triage has become an overcrowded spreadsheet.
This film offers no easy answers. Instead, it uses its small scale for frustrated glimpses of a situation that’s reached a tipping point. “Code black” is hospital terminology for a critical capacity of patients; it’s also, McGarry points out, the state of America’s health care crisis. His lingering question is equally clear: What will we do about it?