The camera begins by following the coolest head in the room. Cynthia Y. Johnson wears red retro glasses and mint scrubs as she leads triage in the emergency room of Highland Hospital, a public hospital in Oakland, California, that is located precisely at the vanguard of hell.
You can read essays about America's dysfunctional health-care system, hear stories about patients rejected by hospitals because they lack insurance, and then pore over stats about how we flush away money in emergency rooms instead of investing in maintenance care. You can do all that—you probably have before—and your brain will understand that America's medical system is inefficient. But it's so much worse than that.
If that sounds sensational, you must—and this will be painful—strap yourself into a movie-theater chair and watch The Waiting Room, which is a mostly unsensationalized, matter-of-fact exhibit of 24 hours in the ER. As a documentary film, it conveys what no essay can. There's no narration. There's no politics. There's no mention of Republicans who spit words about the impoverished—the people who rely on social assistance for survival—like they're cussing. GOP insults about how these people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are never addressed. Instead, you just see the poor and infirm being, well, tortured for lack of proper medical care. Even the wealthy are tortured, stuck in the waiting room without a bed, because the ER is backlogged with patients who should NEVER BE IN THE ER IN THE FIRST PLACE.
A woman waiting 12 hours for pain medication, a drug addict with no home to go to, a man who has to come in for dialysis, an unemployed dad and his daughter with strep throat, a man with a tumor in his balls that no one will operate on at the for-profit hospital. The Waiting Room does what writing can never do: just let you peer into society's last string-bare safety net.
If there's any joy here, it's the superheroes in scrubs. Johnson runs the gates of hell like an angel—even putting people in their place. "I'm tired of hearing you cussin'," she tells a belligerent patient. "You can't tell nobody to shut up. You are making yourself angry. You are not going to get people to do things in the manner you are. You get a grip."
Christ, send her to Congress.