When Deborah Lacks was just two years old, her mother, Henrietta Lacks, died of cervical cancer during treatment at Johns Hopkins. After her death in 1951, some family members rarely spoke of her, as was common for cancer victims in the 50s.
But Deborah, whose nickname is Dale, yearned to learn more about the mother she never knew. Good thing she did. Turns out, her mom’s cells were stolen and sold globally, generating billions in major medical advances. Some of those advances include the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, the AIDS cocktail and in vitro fertilization.
Henrietta Lacks’s cells, which multiplied instead of dying like most, even traveled into space with the second Russian satellite ever put into orbit. Today those HeLa cells, as they are known, are still heavily used.
Now, Deborah’s desire to know more about her mother feeds the HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In the film, Oprah Winfrey portrays Deborah, who worked with science writer Rebecca Skloot, author of the eponymous book that Winfrey optioned after its release in 2010. Deborah seemed to be involved enough in the writing of the book to warrant co-authorship, which she never got.
Rose Byrne plays Skloot with Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe at the helm. Hamilton Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry plays Henrietta and House of Cards’ Reg E. Cathey and Rocky Carroll, forever Joey from Roc, are Lacks’s younger sons Zakariyya and Sonny. Both sons, it should be noted, are official consultants on the film. Courtney B. Vance, Reuben Santiago-Hudson and Leslie Uggams are a few other heavyweights. So the problem isn’t casting in the least.
Perspective is the power of the story. The film is focused largely on Rebecca and Deborah as they try to find out about Henrietta, who died at the age of 31. And while Henrietta does appear in the film in flashbacks, thanks to Goldsberry, she is very elusive.
A troubling aspect of both the book and the film is the running theme that nobody knows about Henrietta’s cells but, yet, family members talk openly about her cells. At times, even giving them more superpowers than they actually have. Both the book and the film sort of paint members of the family, especially Lawrence, who did not sign off on the film, as being money-hungry for wanting to be financially compensated for the use of Henrietta’s cells. Yet, whenever they bring this up, they somehow come across as distasteful. And the notion that Henrietta’s spirit is in those cells is also scoffed at when, if all had gone as planned, the family would never have known they belonged to her.
Often the Lacks family is characterized as being poor and uneducated. But, to the film’s credit, it dispels the perception. In one scene, Deborah even reads some of the documents as Skloot takes notes. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most Americans had limited education.
It probably will not be very evident to most viewers that the Lacks family were homeowners. David Lacks, known as Day worked for Bethlehem Steel, like many men who migrated north. Also they lived in Dundalk, Maryland’s Turner Station, a viable black community dating back to the late 1800s. While some may pick up on the fact that Henrietta was a homemaker through scenes like those in which she opens her home to family members and friends who left Clover for Baltimore, others will surely miss the subtlety.
Unfortunately Johns Hopkins is left largely off the hook in the removal of her Henrietta’s cells. While there are flashbacks of Henrietta being treated there and other scenes that suggest questionable science at play, there is never a driving sense of injustice and exploitation.
The Lacks family’s cries throughout the film somehow ring hollow. Deborah even says she doesn’t care about the money when it is not the money that is the core problem. Yes Henrietta’s cells have done a lot of good and that is to be applauded, but it doesn’t erase the fact that she was never given the option to give her consent, which was not uncommon then. And just because it was a common injustice then doesn’t mean it can’t be rectified today. Plus the film only hints at the suffering Henrietta endured at Johns Hopkins during her battle with cervical cancer.
If the film would have come out in 2010 when Oprah Winfrey first optioned it seven years ago, it probably would have avoided the scrutiny it’s sure to receive in this era of “wokeness.” The fact that Skloot herself continues to financially benefit from “telling” Henrietta’s story doesn’t help the cause. So while it’s nice to see Oprah shine, there is no happy ending here.
HBO premieres The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Saturday, April 22 at 8 pm ET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. Follow her on Twitter, @rondaracha.