HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earns praise for its good intentions and towering Oprah Winfrey performance.
People have devoured the nonfiction bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks since it was released in 2010. The book tells the very true story of a woman trying to successfully claim the rights to her mother’s legacy. Given the material, a film adaptation seemed inevitable. Enter HBO’s new film, which is anchored by a stalwart, commanding performance by Oprah Winfrey. The film itself, however, isn’t given the chance to really breathe or spread its wings, an unfortunate side effect of a slightly choppy adaptation.
Henrietta Lacks died of ovarian cancer in 1951, and her cells were used in almost every medical milestone since. If you’re not familiar with the science behind Lacks’ story (I only knew the bare minimum going in), the opening credits serve as a small, bouncy history lesson before plunging you into the story and introducing these real life people. The story itself is a fascinating tale of medical robbery.
Rose Byrne plays Rebecca Skloot, a journalist who stumbles onto Henrietta’s story and wants to help make it right by writing a book with the help of Henrietta’s children. Winfrey’s Deborah Lacks is obviously very reluctant to talk to anyone again about her mother, but she consents when Rebecca assures Deborah that she only wants to tell the truth. Deborah actually doesn’t have a lot of information about her mother, so her curiosity also fuels her to accept Rebecca’s invitation. As they spend time together, Deborah’s trust in Rebecca constantly wavers. One minute they are enjoying each other’s company as they search for answers, but the next Deborah is accusing Rebecca of hiding money from her and her family.
What Henrietta needed to emerge as a great film is more time. You love these characters. You feel for these characters, so you want more time with them. More time with their background and struggles, particularly Henrietta Lacks herself. While the book was applauded for successfully fusing an emotional story with the potentially confusing scientific subject matter, the adaptation flies by and feels slightly rushed. A discovery involving Deborah’s sister Elsie is introduced and could have been an entire hour of content on its own, and Courtney B. Vance pops up for five slithery minutes as a man who tricks the Lacks family. Where is his spin-off? Lacks clocks in at a slim 90 minutes (Rebecca writes that book awfully quickly), but this could have easily been divided into a longer film or a few separate chapters. The emotional satisfaction we are destined to witness could have been deeper and truly gone for the gut.
The true reason to tune into Henrietta is Winfrey’s performance. Deborah is simultaneously lively and scared, desperate and strong. Winfrey manages to flow from aching heartbreak to theatrical grandeur in the same scene, and she barely looks like herself. This should shut up Winfrey’s acting naysayers. Her turn in Henrietta Lacks might be the performance of her career.
This story is important for many reasons. It would honestly make for an interesting companion piece to the blockbuster film Get Out since they both explore the theme of ownership of black bodies in America. The heart is in the right place, but the execution feels slightly off. Henrietta Lacks is an important American story, and America needed the full-fledged treatment to honor her sacrifice.