Unnatural Causes: 1986 US film about Agent Orange

We went to Los Angeles last weekend to celebrate Jake’s 40th birthday and stayed at Mona Field and Martin Goldstein’s house over in Eagle Rock. Since we were talking about Viet Nam, Martin mentioned that he had written the story upon which the 1986 TV movie Unnatural Causes was based. He also worked on the script with John Sayles. He had it on a DVD so after dinner we watched it. Here is a short section of it on YouTube.

It’s the story of Maude DeVictor, an African-American woman who worked at the Veteran’s Administration in Chicago, and how she found herself picking up the threads of a puzzle about the different illnesses suffered by veterans of the who in the course of their intake interviews mentioned “chemicals.” It’s a true story and Maude is a real person. Many of the lines, Martin told us, are things she actually said and most of the scenes actually happened. She works with a terminally ill veteran Frank Coleman (he’s a composite character) to gather histories from guys he gets in touch with, then fights to get the mounting evidence acknowledged by her boss in Chicago, who then blocks her every way possible, including sending her data to Washington where it will get buried because the news that the US might be responsible for the consequences of Agent Orange is going to be unwelcome. Maude is urged on by another African-American woman at the VA, who filed an EEOC complaint and was forced to work in a utility closet for 6 years, but who points out that the morning after the judgement in her favor came down, the VA was out hiring black women, including — probably – Maude herself. Other onlookers support her quietly, including women at the switchboard who have been told to pass all Maude’s “chemical” phone calls up to her boss.


Maude is finally given a window of 15 minutes to photocopy some of her own reports, waylays a well-known TV news anchor, and forces them into his hands. Eventually, this results in a broadcast. This is the very night that Frank dies. Maude is expecting phone calls to start coming in due to the broadcast, but the next morning, the switch board is silent. Maybe it’s because people think it’s a holiday –it might be Good Friday, or something. So on Monday she comes in just as the switchboard is opening at 9 am. It lights up like Christmas eve. Veterans from all over the country are calling in. One of the women at the switchboard puts a headphone on Maude who gets to hear the voice of one of the unknown veterans for whom she has been going through all this fight. “You’re not alone,” she tells him.

End of movie, very moving, very well-laid out plot that holds together 30 years later. Lots of very clearly conveyed information riding on a tense, logical plot. It probably contributed to many veterans trying to get treatment. Martin said that on the night it played, according to the Nielsen ratings, one third of TVs were tuned to watch it. He says he stood at his apartment window and looked out and saw the glow of TVs in other apartments and thought, “One out of every three is watching my movie.”

Maude is played by Alfre Woodard, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfre_Woodard, who is intense. This was pretty early in her career.

What happened to Maude DeVictor herself? She was laid off by the VA over “a labor dispute” and was still in Chicago as of 2011, jobless, according to “Vetwife” writing at:

2011. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/6/22/987859/-

There’s not much in the movie about what happened in Viet Nam. The word “teratogenic” is mentioned once, in relation to what happens to mice. The first scenes of the movie show a squad of US soldiers pushing through jungle, filmed at an LA botanical garden. They get sprayed by low-flying planes. The next scenes show them emerging into defoliated hillsides that look very much like the landscapes in the photographs at the War Remnants museum. Those scenes were filmed in Malibu where there had been a fire.

News just came in on votes from overseas US citizens voting in the Democratic primary: 69% for Bernie, 31% for Hillary. Yes, this is how it looks if you get outside the US bubble — no question, Bernie is the guy.

Here are some remarkable photos of Saigon in the 1980s:



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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