If there is one thing we learned from The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (or should I say The Immortal Life of Oprah Winfrey), it’s that the classic saying is true: it’s all about the journey and not the destination.
The film did shed some much-needed light on a story that was kept hidden for far too long. Unfortunately, this ambitious adaptation bit off more than it could chew, and fell short in delivering all that it set out to do.
The film tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in the early 1950’s. While receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors discovered that her cancer cells had a unique ability that allowed them to multiply indefinitely. Henrietta eventually succumbed to the cancer, but her cells went on to help create cures for many illnesses, and sparked a multi-million dollar industry. Though her cells became famous, the woman behind the cells was never named, and her family was never told the true story behind their mother’s immortal legacy.
The plot itself takes place in 1999 when an ambitious and quirky reporter named Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) becomes determined to tell the story of the women behind the famous HeLa cells. She attempts to contact Henrietta’s only living daughter, Deborah, who is played by Oprah Winfrey. Deborah is distrusting at first, but Rebecca is persistent and slowly but surely is able to gain Deborah’s trust. Told from Rebecca’s point of view, the two unlikely pals embark on a journey to discover the many mysteries surrounding Henrietta’s life and death.
After spending time with Deborah and her tumultuous family, it becomes obvious that the Lacks know very little about their mother. Although the journey seems to start as one of setting out to discover more about Henrietta, it ultimately becomes a story centered around Deborah and her troubled life. We learn about the abuse she endured after her mother’s death, and the negative effect Henrietta’s death had on her family as a whole. Though we do get a bit more context on Henrietta’s life and the kind of person she was, we ultimately find out very little about her other than she was a nice person with a pretty smile.
The climax of the story comes when Deborah and her younger brother go to Johns Hopkins Hospital and are able to hold their mother’s cells in their hands. This is the only closure that the family and the viewers get. Although Deborah and her brothers are able to better understand more about their mother and her contribution to science by the end, there is little justice and resolve for the family.
The film starts off with good intentions, but becomes less of a tribute to Henrietta Lacks and more of a story revolved around Deborah. The life of Henrietta is pushed aside as the focus becomes the struggle Deborah goes through as she tries to accept and understand her mother’s life and legacy. It seems that the film almost contradicts itself, asserting that Henrietta deserves to be understood and remembered, yet completely disregards Henrietta and leaves us knowing just as much about the mysterious woman as we did in the beginning.
Although I believe the story was somewhat lost in translation, there is no doubt that Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of Deborah Lacks deserves massive praise. Rose Byrne’s portrayal of Rebecca Skloot was commendable, but was completely overshadowed by Winfrey’s powerful performance that was even hard to watch at times. Winfrey, who also produced the film, effortlessly portrayed the complex character of Deborah Lacks. Although I am disappointed with the fact that Henrietta herself fell through the cracks of her own story, there is no doubt that Winfrey’s portrayal of Deborah’s manic personality and violent mood swings makes for a compelling film.
The idea behind The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was honorable and no doubt brought a very powerful story to the surface, but it touched base without following through on many important aspects of her story. There was little closure for the Lack’s family, which in turn meant little closure for us as the viewer. I feel that this riveting story would have served better as a miniseries in which we could truly understand Henrietta, her family, and their hard journey.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tugged at our heartstrings and provided us with some powerful performances, but all-in-all gave us a much too condensed version that failed to deliver all that Henrietta Lacks deserved.