Writers tell stories in hopes that not only are they read but they also come to life. This is what has happened to Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the tragic tale of Lacks, a 31-year-old black woman from Clover, Va., whose terminal-cancer diagnosis and undying cells ended up changing the way medicine was done all over the world and, seemingly, forever.
Lacks’ celebrity cells are unique because they are the first cell line discovered in over 30 years of attempts that can survive and reproduce indefinitely. Dr. George Gey (played by Reed Birney) said, “With this, scientists will be able to perform experiments that they never could on a living human being.”
Skloot (played by Rose Byrne), a freelance science writer, became obsessed with Lacks after seeing her beautiful face and hearing about her cells changing modern medicine, but was disappointed that there wasn’t much information about her as a person. She made it her mission to get to know Lacks, and during that mission she got to know Lacks’ family—namely, three of her children: Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), Zakariyya (Reg E. Cathey) and Lawrence (John Douglas Thompson). And it was this personal connection to Lacks and her surviving family that helped shape Skloot’s retelling of their story.
“The book is massive,” explains the director, George C. Wolfe. “Massive emotionally, intellectually; it’s a science book and it’s an intimate book about families and race in America and economics and power. All these things are juggled in fascinating and interesting ways.”
Skloot created an intimate story that was not only scientifically sound but moving. Oprah’s face is seen as the focal point of the movie poster, and after screening this film, I see why. It’s not because she is the richest person in the cast or is most of the reason this production is gracing our screens; it’s because her portrayal of the inquisitive, fun, guarded, wounded, sensitive and tough soul that is Deborah was inspired, and is easily one of Oprah’s most comprehensive displays of her stellar acting talents. In short, Oprah was damn good in her interpretation of the roller coaster ride that is Deborah Lacks Pullum’s life.
Oprah expertly moves through the deep-seated emotions of a black woman who wanted nothing more than respect and peace for her dead mother. Indeed, Oprah’s portrayal of Deborah is a movie all its own. Her quest alongside Skloot provides beautiful vignettes down memory lane. We’re able to see the gorgeous Renée Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta with red fingernails, perfectly coiffed hair, and a smile and laugh that could light up the dark nights in Clover. She’s a vision, and because you know who she is and how important she is, the flashbacks are welcomed with open arms and gripped tight.
The flashbacks to when Henrietta was alive—whether singing to baby Deborah, dancing around a party or feeding all of her “cousins” platefuls of Southern cuisine—reminded me of my birth mother, who also died from cancer. Henrietta died in 1951 from cervical cancer, and breast cancer claimed my mother’s life 36 years later. Despite the many medical advances since Henrietta’s death, cancer continues to break families apart.
Much like Oprah’s character, Deborah, I was a baby when cancer ravaged my mother’s body, making her a shell of who she was supposed to be. During a flashback, Henrietta revealed to two of her friends that she had something “inside of her,” and that something was cancer. And in that moment, she begged her friends to make sure her children were taken care of, and instantly missed something she realized she might not ever be able to do: comb her baby Deborah’s hair.
My mother was sick from the time she conceived me until she died three-and-a-half years after I was born. I know she had many chances to hold me because I’ve seen pictures. But I don’t think she ever had the strength to comb my hair. Tears dripped down like a leaky faucet, and my mind danced along my mother’s face and how I assumed she must have looked with the cancer absorbing her life and energy, wanting to at least caress my hair.
Deborah maniacally flip-flopped over whether or not she’d help Skloot tell her family’s story, but eventually she ends up taking Skloot on a hell of a ride to get to the heart of the story. The Lacks family was unaware of Henrietta’s cells’ impact, and when the truth slowly starts to reveal itself in broken and painful memories and Skloot’s investigation, you realize the deep-rooted distrust of doctors that played a huge psychological role in the lives of most of the Lacks family. And perhaps it’s even deeper than that, and the distrust is also because of racism, classicism and questionable ethics.
Black pain runs deep, and black silence even deeper. At one point in the movie, Deborah explains to Skloot that in her family, you don’t speak on the dead. Deborah was speaking from her family’s experience of never really talking about Henrietta, and that during her childhood, when she had questions, her father would silence her.
At one point, doctors from Johns Hopkins—the hospital that treated Henrietta—visit the Lacks family to take their blood. The doctors tell them it was to test for cancer, but the truth is, they wanted to see how many Henrietta Lacks, or HeLa, cells the Lacks siblings carried. Young Deborah asks questions of the doctors, and one of them tells her that her mother’s cells were embedded in a nuclear bomb to test the effects of radiation. And because Deborah doesn’t understand this, she asks her father about it, and he yells, “Either you alive or you dead! You can’t be both!”
Right in that moment, the father of Henrietta’s children shut down any conversation about her or her science-defying cells. And maybe it was also then that Deborah learned never to ask about her mother’s cells again. She was silenced.
Maybe it’s a stereotype or generalization, but black people have been known to push our pain so far down, we can’t access it, as opposed to facing it head-on. Maybe it’s because we’ve suffered centuries of physical and mental pain at the hands of our oppressors? Whatever the catalyst, the response to trauma in the black community is, more often than not, silence.
It’s that pain that kept Deborah and her family from telling their story. Deborah explains to Skloot that she can’t be hurt again by digging up information about her mother’s cells. At times, that hurt stops Deborah in her tracks. That same hurt stopped her siblings from even trying to find out anything.
I personally struggled with the idea of this being a “white savior” movie because of Skloot’s presence. Skloot has said that she was resistant to making herself a character in the book, but it’s her character that gets the story told. “Keep on being white!” Deborah tells Skloot when she finds out that Skloot has not met with resistance when she visits doctors to get information about Henrietta. Deborah realizes, just like us, that white privilege can be used for good.
My biggest complaint about this film is that it’s far too short. It most certainly has enough meat to stretch into a series. From Zakariyya’s violent and somehow endearing pain to all of the traumatic secrets revealed from Deborah’s childhood to the other Lacks boys’ resistance to digging up the past, there’s so much left hanging.
We also learn about another of Henrietta’s children, her daughter Elise, who died at age 15 in a mental institution. In their hunt, Deborah and Skloot uncover a photo of her in the institution, and she looks as if she was severely beaten, and there’s a white hand holding up her head. I was immediately brought back to the image of Sandra Bland’s mug shot, in which, some argued, she was already dead. The parallel sent a chill through my body—as did most of this fantastic movie.
Editor’s note: You can enjoy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO on April 22 at 8 p.m. ET.