Racism. Classism. The goddamn patriarchy. All of these issues are of great relevancy to our current culture, and all of these issues are pertinent themes of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the new HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne. Chronicling the legal but unethical theft of a black woman’s cells by white doctors, the film proves to be more concerned with finding a happy ending than discussing how the systemic nature of America’s racial rift has adversely affected a family, if not generations of families. That might be a viable option if the “Henrietta Lacks” emotional core wasn’t built on rage, but — as is admirably encapsulated in Winfrey’s performance — there’s too much suffering here to settle for complacency.
Serving as yet another example of a storyteller stealing focus from the story she’s trying to tell, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” primarily tracks Rebecca Skloot (Byrne), who wrote the book on which the movie is based, instead of Lacks or her family. We meet Skloot, a name so quirky you need to remind yourself this is a true story every time you hear it, in 1999 when she starts pursuing her book idea, and it’s through Skloot we come to know Henrietta Lacks, a woman who walked into a hospital in 1951 for treatment and, unbeknownst to her, proceeded to aid in “every major medical breakthrough” of the next 50 years.
You see, scientists collected her tissue sample and started performing experiments on her cells — a never-before-seen strain that could be reproduced indefinitely — without ever properly acknowledging Henrietta. The doctors referred to the strain as HeLa, and when pressed about who was responsible for providing the miraculous cells, gave the false name of Helen Lane, for fear of reciprocity as much as doctor-patient confidentiality. Henrietta never saw any money for her “donation,” and this fact, combined with the erasure of her identity, bred a deep distrust of the medical community, authority figures, and people in general within her children.
So one can imagine how they might react when some lady wants to use them to write a book about their mother. She first contacts Deborah Lacks (Winfrey), a woman in her 50s who desperately wants to learn more about her mother. Deborah’s so pained by the quest and frustrated by her failure that she suffers a stroke just before Skloot can make contact. When they get together, there’s an awkward period when Deborah has to feel out Skloot’s motivations, and, for a moment, the film feels like it’s ready to take us down a more dangerous path than its light jazz soundtrack and boilerplate biopic structuring foretells.
Alas, t’is not to be. Though the film pays cursory acknowledgement to the family’s suspicions, the film itself is too eager to take on Skloot’s perspective. That the upbeat ending is found in the white woman’s story rather than the black daughter’s only exacerbates the misplaced focus, but there are issues before that. Midway through the movie, Deborah’s protective nature becomes too much for Skloot, and she yells at her, “If you don’t trust me after everything we’ve been through, you can go fuck yourself!” Both characters retreat to think about what’s been said, but the onus is placed on Deborah to apologize for her defensive position, despite the plot revolving around white people in power taking advantage of her family.
As the film progresses, Deborah’s tragic life becomes clearer and clearer, as does her motivation for learning more about her mother. But it’s Winfrey who sells the character more than the film itself. In a largely restrained turn, Winfrey covers a wide emotional spectrum: We see Deborah at limited highs and limitless lows without it ever feeling like the actress is pushing beyond the moment (for, say, an Emmy). Even when the film forces pretension upon Deborah (like when she awkwardly walks in front of a projection of her mother’s cells to visually highlight the connection between science and love), Winfrey astutely ratchets down her output, providing balance to a scene headed toward artificiality.
Byrne is as solid as ever, and “House of Cards” favorite Reg E. Cathey stops by to provide additional gravitas, but the cast can’t quite make up for the idea that “Henrietta Lacks” feels like a misplaced movie. The perspective is off, but so too is the format: This is a story that Winfrey will knock out of the park in interviews and on the awards circuit, more so than the film can accomplish on its own. It would’ve made for a great episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — maybe even a week-long series — but it struggles to carry the needed effect as a film.
The film is torn between assigning drama to Deborah’s unquantifiable emotional needs and the easily tracked progress of Skloot’s book. While Deborah seeks closure, Skloot seeks publishing, and though the link between the two is clear and necessary, we simply don’t care that much about a book being written when Deborah’s anguish is realized by Winfrey with such passion. If we would’ve started there, with Deborah, and watched how Skloot helped her instead of the other way around, perhaps then “The Life of Henrietta Lacks” would have felt as immortal as the woman herself.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m. on HBO.