“The story is about loss and identity, the power of knowing your own story and how it manifests itself inside of you,” says George C. Wolfe. “It’s about the desire to know so that you can be a more complete human being.” Wolfe, the mega-Award-winning film, theater and TV writer/director, is referring to his film adaptation of The New York Times nonfiction best seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by science journalist Rebecca Skloot. The film, directed and co-adapted for the screen by Wolfe, debuts on HBO tonight, April 22, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31. The poor African-American wife and mother from rural Clover, Virginia, not only left behind five young children, but also her remarkable “immortal cell line” that changed the face of medical research forever and became one of the medical profession’s best kept secrets.
During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, tissue from Henrietta’s malignant tumor was harvested for cellular research, without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. This ethically suspect activity was apparently standard practice at the time. Henrietta’s cancer cells not only tragically multiplied rapidly in her body, ultimately killing her, but unexpectedly broke precedent and continued to multiply in the lab and unbelievably still do in medical research labs around the world. They’ve also been used in studies conducted in outer space. And Dr. Oz even whipped out a test tube of her cells on a recent segment of his TV show promoting the film.
While Henrietta’s name and provenance were seemingly of no consequence to those in the biomedical field, her so-named “HeLa cells” retooled the industry and quietly led to breakthroughs in cloning, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, as well as the development of drugs and vaccines for, among other things, polio, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease.
Then along came freelance science journalist Rebecca Skloot. Her obsession with the ethically challenged origins of HeLa cells led her on a 10-year odyssey to research a book that would honor the life and legacy of the human being whose cells continue to be the lifeblood of millions. Rebecca’s efforts to gain the cooperation of Henrietta’s family serve as the linchpin for the screen adaptation and call to mind Emma Stone’s pivotal role in The Help. As played by actress Rose Byrne, Rebecca comes across as a caring, patient and ultimately restorative friend to Dorothy.
George Wolfe’s expressionistic vision celebrates Henrietta’s immortality through her family’s reflections and fragmented memories, especially those of Henrietta’s middle-aged, emotionally fragile daughter, Dorothy (played by Oprah Winfrey). Winfrey’s manic-depressive Dorothy is the center of the film’s universe, as she comes to terms with her mother’s medical legacy, her sister’s horrific death in a state asylum and a childhood scarred by emotional and sexual abuse and the grieving hole in her heart for the mother she never really knew.
Winfrey wasn’t initially keen on tackling the role of Dorothy. “It wasn’t until I saw George’s breakdown of the script that I understood it was actually about a daughter in search of her mother,” explains Winfrey. “It’s about a daughter who is, really, in search of her mother’s love and connection in order to validate, verify and affirm for herself that she was loved. Knowing that part of the story is what allowed me to take it on.”
Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Dorothy Lacks is truly heartfelt and award-worthy but, at times, just too much for the story Wolfe is trying to tell. The same goes for the profuse, jazz-inspired score by Branford Marsalis. However, special kudos to Renée Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Uggams in lovely, much too brief performances as Henrietta Lacks and her cousin, Sadie, respectively.
Although the film introduces the woman from whom millions of life-enabling cells have come, it pretty much glosses over the back story of the 1950’s medical, racist and sexist culture that propelled Henrietta’s life and cancer treatment to its tragic end. For a better understanding of America’s mid-century medical and cultural mindset and Henrietta Lacks’ biography, you would do well to read the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now available as a movie tie-in edition, or check out Rebecca Skloot’s website @ http://rebeccaskloot.com
The film will be an evergreen supplement to the book in classes and discussions focusing on biomedical research, medical marvels, women’s issues, grief and African-American studies in schools, libraries and universities. You can watch the Harpo Films/Your Face Goes Here Entertainment/Cine Mosaic production of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tonight, April 22, 2017, on HBO at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, or during additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead. Also look for it on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals. –Judith Trojan