Documentary highlights a jewel in history

Monday November 13, 2000

By Betsy M. Hunton 

Special to the Daily Planet 


Sometimes —if you work very, very hard and are willing to risk quite a lot — dreams really do come true. 

For Mukulla J. Godwin, a psychiatric nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, the dream is almost realized. To the titles and degrees she has earned (B.A. Behavoral Science, B.S.N. Nursing, M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling) she’s added the least predictable of all: “Film Producer.”  

She and award-winning director, Chike Nwoffiah, have created the remarkable documentary, “A Jewel in History: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored,” to be shown at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 14th at Berkeley’s St. Paul A.M.E. Church. 

“Jewel” was first introduced to the Berkeley public at a showing Aug. 23 by the University of California’s Public Health Department as part of the university's program of community relations. Although fascinating enough from the viewpoint of the largely unknown black medical history alone, the film speaks to many other aspects of the African-American experience. Next Tuesday is the only Bay Area showing presently scheduled.  

The 53 minute film, backed by a soul-stunning soundtrack, utilizes a wealth of archival film footage, and is edited from over 100 hours of interviews with black physicians and academicians; it may well be the first pictorial documentation of a segregated black medical institution. 

Perhaps surprisingly, much of the story is of triumph, of a 600 plus bed hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, which established a national reputation for superior medical care and physician education. One surgeon who interned there says: “When I was through, I knew I had simply the best education possible.” 

Another doctor sums it up: “We knew we had to be better than the whites.” 

The impressive facility was named for the young black lawyer and activist who is credited with much of the political work and fundraising which made the hospital possible. In a remarkable political coup, the city of St. Louis put up $1.3 million toward the hospital and the Roosevelt Administration funded another $2 million. In a crime which is still unsolved, Homer G. Phillips was murdered six years before the hospital opened in 1937. 

An extremely large, beautiful building, Homer G., (as it’s still called by the people who knew it as an important part of their world), ironically enough, flourished during segregation. It was shut down in 1979 despite vehement protests from the local African-American community. 

Protesters barricaded themselves in the hospital for 17 days before the facility closed and maintained efforts to have it reopened for seven more years. 

Godwin is a nurse, an idealist, an activist, someone who sees an issue and does something about it; she has a head full of ringlets and a warm, approachable manner. She cares a lot about public health and she also cares a lot about African-American history. “There are so many elements 

of our history that are not known,” she says, with all the fervor of a dedicated teacher.  

It is not by chance that the film’s narrative begins with an African-American doctor’s assertion that “The history of our people in this country must be told over and over again, so that our young people can have something to grab onto.”  

But Godwin is motivated as much by her concern for what she sees as a public health crisis for the indigent in general as she is by her dedication to issues affecting only African-Americans. Asked which is her highest priority: African-American history, medical history or what she describes as a decline in health services to all uninsured Americans, Godwin responds “All of the above.”  

Godwin, a single mother, wasn’t looking for something to fill her time twenty some years ago when a friend who had received her own nurse’s training at Homer G. shared her grief at the closing of the hospital. Godwin’s attention was originally caught by the idea of just getting out the story of a nurse who is believed to have originated several major advances in surgical techniques: Homer G.’s Chief of Surgical Services, Ida B.Northcross, M.A.  

Over a period of years, Godwin, a San Francisco native, steeped herself in black medical history and made numerous out-of-state trips to research the Northcross' story in the archives of Washington and St. Louis Universities. She was thinking of a possible book, but says it simply was not possible to find sufficient documentation. 

What she did find, however, was the amazing history of the hospital itself, materials which she felt dictated the form of a film documentary for a story that needed to be told. With absolutely zero film-making experience and nothing but a nurse’s salary to face production costs, Godwin calmly set out to create the film which debuted last fall to a St. Louis crowd of over 600. 

It wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t fast. But this woman is smart enough to know what she does n’t know. She found an award winning film-maker, Chike Nwoffiah, and interested him in the project; Nwoffiah insisted that she take several film-making classes before he agreed to join up. She did, and he came on board. 

It’s a toss-up which of the two, the San Francisco nurse who is the film’s producer, or the ex-business man from Nigeria who is the film’s director, is the most unlikely person to end up as co-creator of this documentary about a hospital in St. Louis. 

Nwoffiah started out as a child actor on Nigerian television, and subequently attended a performing arts high school. He went on to obtain Nigerian undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business and International Economics which brought him to a corporate job in a U.S. pharmaceutical company.  

In this country, however, his lifelong love of the performing arts resurfaced. Nwoffiah left the business world for good, to establish the award-winning Oriki Theater Group in 1993. Subsequently, he went into film and directed “Attention! I am Listening.”  

Among numerous others, the film won the Black Filmmakers Award in 1997 and the CINDY International Cinema and Industry Award. He chose to work with Godwin from the many alternatives offered to him after the awards because “She had a genuine story to tell.” 

Once Godwin had completed her years of research and located the right director with the right vision, the issue of money was paramount. 

Family members could contribute a little, but the great bulk of the costs were up to Godwin herself. This is an expensive road she’s chosen to travel. In addition to the costs of the film production itself, there were endless long-distance calls, numerous trips back and forth to St. Louis, and finally a six months’ leave from her job.  

She took a deep breath and, eventually, two mortgages on her San Francisco home.  

Godwin, whose energy never seems to flag, currently works three 16-hour nursing shifts a week to give herself free time to concentrate on activities related to the film. Her focus now is on fundraising and on efforts to reach a national audience. In February, she will take the film to the convention held by the National Association of Black Journalists. And she’s garnering letters of support from such groups as the Health 

Professionals Union and the California Nurse’s Association in her approach to the National Association of Black Broadcasters, which determines material to be presented on KQED, the Public Broadcasting System.  

At this point, Godwin has become very much aware that the project needs a professional fund raiser and grant writer. 

Anyone care to bet that she won’t get one?