I have the book on my to read list, but until then I sat down to watch the film. The true story of Henrietta Lacks and her stolen cells which led to countless contributions in science, medicine, and engineering, as told by writer Rebecca Skloot in her novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Published in 2010 this novel went on to be a best seller, then optioned into a film on HBO, starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah (Dale) Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. The author of the book, Rebecca Skloot is played by Rose Byrne, most notably from Neighbors, Bridesmaids, Incideous, and Spy. Byrne is the novice author obsessed with a woman she heard about in college that no one had answers about, while her father lay dying in the hospital, much like Henrietta. It is recognized a few times throughout the film how Skloot’s white privilege lends her access and outcomes that the Lacks family never benefited from or ever will. Henrietta’s story, unfortunately, would never see the light of day if it weren’t for a white woman making it all happen. A fact of life that reaches beyond film, literature, fact, and fiction. Skloot’s novel, turned film, points to these overwhelming key points throughout the film without keying the side of the vehicle being driven to make the point in the first place. If Henrietta was black, none of this would have happened and if Skloot was black, she would have never been granted access to her research and Henrietta’s medical history. A key scene to pinpoint this is when Rebecca and Deborah go to Crownsville Hospital to see about medical records when the white woman working there only talks face to face with Rebecca and acts like Deborah isn’t even there despite she being the one asking the questions. Deborah notes, “I guess I am invisible today.” The theme runs deep and strong throughout while remaining tucked behind the ear of the story we are listening to.
Most notable is the strong characterization of Deborah and Zakriyya, one of her older brothers. Their personalities with all of its hard and soft spots were incredible. Forgetting for a moment that these are characters based upon real people, both Oprah and Reg E. Cathay (notable in many films, but most recently on Luke Cage), bring these characters through every emotion and range of humanity while reminding viewers that people are never one arch type but a rainbow of emotions that can range from ennui to full-on manic and back again. Their performances were incredible.
I recommend this film to anyone, but with the caution that I did fast forward approximately 30 seconds of the film where the full act was never depicted but it was not age appropriate for my 8-year old that was in the room, which occurs in a flashback. Some parents apparently had the book banned from their children’s schools because of a description of this and another section that was just words used by Henrietta to describe how she found herself to be taken ill, but I did not see a problem with that at all. It was useful for understanding and pointed to the types of things black women have had to do historically for their own health since doctors would not treat them and if they did it was poorly. Facts are useful for understanding historical and current things, which I discussed with my daughter as a result.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will leave you full of raw emotion about how things used to be and how things are and could be better. Like many other things about history, it is up to us to dig and seek the truth, because if it left up to those who have and had the ability to bury the information that did not cast a favorable light on them, we would know only a whitewashed romanticised version of the past which will doom us to repeat a history we never knew occurred in the first place.