An Astonishing Oprah Winfrey Anchors HBO's Adaptation Of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
A massive book becomes a focused, excellent film, thanks in large part to one remarkable performance.
Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is an exhilarating read because it's about so many things. It's about Henrietta herself, a poor black woman who unwittingly "donated" her cells, in 1951, to Johns Hopkins researchers, when she thought she was only being treated for cervical cancer. It's about how those cells proved uniquely resilient and thus became the bedrock of countless medical breakthroughs. It's about how, despite the billions of dollars generated by her body, Henrietta's children grew up doubly impoverished -- lacking not only money, but also the simple knowledge of their mother's legacy.
The book is also about the context surrounding this story. When she's not writing about Henrietta's family, Skloot adroitly summarizes everything from America's history of using black citizens as medical guinea pigs to the journeys those crucial cells (dubbed "HeLa" to obscure the woman who provided them) have taken around the planet.
But the HBO film based on Skloot's book isn't about all of these things. Or rather, it's informed by them, but it's really about Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's youngest daughter, played here by Oprah Winfrey. That's a good idea. Writer Peter Landesman and writer-director George C. Wolfe smartly decide that Deborah's story alone can point us toward everything else.
For instance, when Deborah and Rebecca go looking for medical records at a rundown facility, the white lady who storms out demanding explanations only speaks to Rebecca. "I guess I just became invisible!" Deborah says, which is a swift, meaningful way to demonstrate how racism pops up everywhere. Because if Deborah's invisible here, then how else have she and her family members been invisible to the medical community? (There are several scenes likes this peppered throughout the film, and they have a cumulative heft.)
Meanwhile, though we meet Deborah's relatives -- all of whom are just as poor and wounded and spirited as she is -- we don't spend much time getting to know them. They're all have strong moments, but because this isn't a miniseries, we don't have time for their individual histories the way Skloot does in her manuscript. But we CAN see how the family relates to Deborah. Whether they're loudly seconding her rage about Henrietta's mistreatment or (in one of the most moving scenes I've watched in a while) calling on Jesus to help her through a manic-depressive episode, they are suggesting how a community can thrive, even when it's beaten down from all sides.
And about that oppression: along with the racist medical establishment, we see Deborah and her kin being preyed upon by a black con man who promises to sue hospitals on the family's behalf. There are also scenes of adult relatives assaulting Deborah and her brother when they're children. There are no limits, the movie says, to the ways you can steal things from someone.
Let me be clear, though, that this movie is not depressing. Deborah is too strong for that. Yes, she's got mental and health problems that are partially to blame on disease, and partially to blame on a lifetime of hardship and mistreatment. But at the same time, she has a fire for the truth and for her own life that makes her seem unstoppable. You can feel for her without pitying her.
In fact, I found myself weeping with happiness during a climactic scene, when Henrietta's cells provide Deborah some unexpected solace. Without giving too much away, the moment hinges on the idea that, in some way, Henrietta is everywhere, always. The movie suggests this is a victory for all black women who have felt erased by history, but mostly, it's a victory for Deborah. And because I'd seen her as a fierce, flinty fighter, I was moved by her joy.
And it has to be said: Oprah Winfrey is the perfect actress to make this work. In a glorious performance that had damned well better win her an Emmy, she dives right into Deborah's contradictions, making her warm and loving and crazed and fearful and angry at the same time. She makes it all cohere. She make us understand Deborah's raw heart. She makes this movie's focus seem like the only possibly choice.