As photos are still being rounded up from the recent March for Science and Bill Nye’s newest show is released, the film adaptation of some of the most famous cells in the world aptly hits HBO. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a novel by Rebecca Skloot that actually was mandatory reading for my incoming college class. In turn, I am intimately aware of the impact that one woman of color had on the entire medical world. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to see Oprah heading up the film project to bring Lacks’ life to screen.
The film begins with a montage that somewhat bombards the viewer with the facts of Lacks’ life. Henrietta Lacks learned she was dying of cervical cancer in 1951 and found treatment at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. There, the doctors who worked with her stole her cells and were in for a huge surprise. While Henrietta herself died, her cells did not. And to this day, through nuclear bombs and polio, they still won’t quit. They were the first “immortal” cell line in the world. But, her identity was immediately masked— her cells were nicknamed HeLa, and the name behind them masqueraded as “Helen Lane” for years to come. People were not allowed to write about Henrietta’s involvement in the advancements her cells made (due to racism, accountability and of course, consent). That is, until Rebecca Skloot (played by Rose Byrne) set out to publish everything she could.
Skloot’s involvement in writing the novel is the driving force for this adaptation, which has received mixed reception. Reminiscent of The Help and the trope of the nice white teacher coming into an “urban” school to change the students’ lives for the better, the film has already received criticism for the white lens involved in using Rebecca Skloot the same way it was in the novel. Rose Byrne consistently acts like a fish out of water throughout the process of discovering Henrietta’s family, and the impact (or lack thereof) that her cells had on them. The awkwardness is understandable, but could have been easily avoided if the film had simply shift the camera from Skloot to Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest living daughter at the time (played by Oprah).
In my opinion, this film follows the wrong journey, or at least, puts too much importance on Skloot’s involvement. That does, however, bring up two interesting topics. First, how Henrietta’s identity had to be smothered (because she was a woman of color in a time of segregation, and who knows what advances would have been hindered if the public knew). Second, how access to information suddenly busted open only when Skloot put her foot in the ring. At one point in the film, Deborah addresses it outright, telling Skloot to “keep on being white” so that more information can finally be accessed.
That being said, we do receive additional insights into Henrietta’s life through the accounts of others. Mrs. Lacks herself is played by Renee Goldsberry, and a few flashbacks are given, but not as much information as the novel yielded.
The entire medical industry (Johns Hopkins specifically) seems to be the main villain right until the end. They hinder Lacks and Skloot at multiple turns in pursuit of the truth, and forece them to push through in any way they could. The industry that was supposed to heal and cause massive changes in science also affected Deborah massively. Of course, it is not the only thing to have done so. Her family dynamic was in shambles and was almost excluded from the novel entirely, according to a scene with a prospective editor.
From my first impression, I thought this movie would allow us to gain more insight into Henrietta’s and Deborah’s life (as was present in the novel). But, an “outside looking in” perspective still pervades the story. Some of the facts are twisted for dramatization, but that is expected.
Most importantly, I thought that Lacks would be the main character at first, but Oprah’s role as Deborah was quickly put on the back burner in the beginning, as Skloot is commanded to “speak to the men[s]”. Her mental health was also questioned. (Insert eye roll emoji here.) She does gain traction again though and embark with Skloot to unravel the mystery of Henrietta’s immortal cells. Deborah Lacks definitely holds her own against Skloot throughout, especially when they clashed (which was multiple times, the trust issues ran too deep).
There are quite a few unnerving parts as this story unravels as well. The portrayal of mental illness (both from the 1950s with Elsie Lacks’ treatment to Deborah’s multiple diagnoses) has a chilling effect, and adds more tragedy to a family that was already cheated of any closure regarding Mrs. Lacks and her cells. There’s power in Oprah’s portrayal, which is brought to a climax and then somewhat shoved away quickly. In the end, it left me wanting.
Even with the somewhat voyeuristic method of filming, I would still suggest watching this movie if you are not aware of the advancements Henrietta’s cells made to the world. In both life and death, this movie portrays that she was a force to be reckoned with. It also provides significant insight into the more seedy aspects of the medical world and its treatment of people of color. I highly recommend you ead the novel too; it’s very compelling.