Review of HBO’s Adaptation of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’
When I heard that HBO was working on an adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” my excitement ran high but was quickly matched by skepticism. However, my reservations died down when I discovered Oprah would be behind the project. I figured that this adaptation would be done faithfully with Oprah’s support and input on the project. While I will freely and honestly disclose that I haven’t closely followed Oprah’s production career—I haven’t watched Queen Sugar yet and though I watched Beloved a while ago I don’t remember much, but in my mind, Oprah’s name is synonymous with quality. She usually only has high-quality books in her book club. Regardless, the story behind HeLa cells is so incredibly important and powerful to society at large that if anyone would bring Henrietta’s name to the forefront of mainstream culture, it would be Oprah.
“Being a student of African American history, I was thrown by the idea that I’d never heard of Henrietta Lacks, and especially having lived in Baltimore…”— Oprah Winfrey
When I read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” as a woman of color in the sciences I was infuriated to discover how deceitful researchers had been to Henrietta’s family and how much she struggled seeking treatment for her cancer during the later years of her life. A big part of why “Immortal Life” resonated with me was the detailed account of Henrietta’s life, the struggles of her living relatives and children in the wake of her death when seeking knowledge about their mother’s cells, and their beloved Henrietta’s significant contribution to major advances in medicine and science.
HBO’s adaptation mostly focuses on Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah King (Oprah Winfrey) and the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne). The film does a great job of portraying the vulnerability of Deborah King and her earnest quest for the truth behind her mother. However, the film lacks significantly in actual celebration of Henrietta Lacks. This film leaves out the major focus of Skloot’s book, Henrietta Lacks and the history of her cell line, to focus on the narrative of Skloot’s journey to write the book and her relationship with Deborah King. This oversight makes this a missed opportunity to bring Henrietta’s place in the history of science to a broader population.
Skloot’s book does highlight the struggles of the Lacks family, who have not made a dime from their mother’s cells, an ironic reality when juxtaposed with the fact that they all suffer from serious health conditions. In fact, the family had no idea about HeLa cells and how famous they were until researchers showed up to draw blood from the family for studies. Even then, they were misled and kept in the dark about their mother’s fame.
When reading the book, it’s hard not to feel rage and anger towards the doctors and researchers taking advantage and garnering acclaim off a woman who came to seek help from them from a life-threatening illness. The film draws you into the struggle, pain, and confusion Deborah felt but leaves out the pain, racism, and confusion Henrietta experienced when seeking treatment. The adaptation focuses on describing Deborah’s journey for the truth and emphasized Skloot’s struggles in getting Deborah and the Lacks family to talk to her. The one thing you truly get a sense of is the confusion the family had in regards to HeLa cells. Rebecca discovers this as she gets closer to Deborah and the family. When I read the book, I felt such strong feelings as I was introduced to the full story, and the film stirs up the same emotions but without the strength and force, I felt initially. This film does touch upon aspects of Henrietta’s life, such as how well-loved she was in her community and amongst her family, but leaves the viewer with a superficial understanding of who she really was and how difficult it was for her to find treatment.
This film doesn’t shy away from the racism deeply embedded in this story as well as the difficulty Rebecca Skloot had in getting her book published while including the family’s legacy, as several scenes show her at odds with publishers and editors who reject her desire to tell a story that goes beyond the lab.
Despite the good intentions of the film it has not been without criticism, even from within the family. Lawrence Lacks is unhappy with the film, accusing HBO of exploiting his mother’s memory.
Skloot devoted 10 years to working on her book, which was published in 2010 and some think the film should have focused more on Skloot and her achievements in addition to Henrietta’s story. I think this is bullshit. Skloot herself was initially hesitant to write herself into the original book. Why should a film that seeks to bring Henrietta and her family’s plight to the public do anything but focus on those aspects of the story, which has been continuously passed over and marginalized for so long? The legacy of HeLa cells is filled with pain but most people focus on the scientific breakthroughs and give no thought to the family. It makes you wonder if HeLa cells had come from a white woman, would the same outcome have occurred? Would the family have been kept in the dark?
Despite the importance of the HeLa cells, many people don’t know about Henrietta Lacks. Many researchers give no thought to the person behind the cells that power their research and this is poignantly highlighted by this film in a few brief scenes, such as when researchers take blood from the Lacks family just to see if cell lines were contaminated with HeLa cells and avoid discussion with the family about what their intentions are.
As a researcher, the most impactful scene that this film beautifully brought to life was Deborah and Zakariyya finally getting to visit a lab and see their mother’s cells personally, ultimately holding a vial of their mother. To them, you can tell it was a necessary reunion with their mom, whom they loved so much. The scene with Deborah and Zakariyya standing in front of a projector with their mother’s cells being projected onto their whole bodies hits you hard when you realize that after all the years searching, this is what Deborah truly wanted. To understand, to know, to see, and to be close to her mother.
This could and should have been a mini-series. 1 1/2 hours is simply not enough time to do justice to Henrietta’s legacy. While the book brought to light the injustices, both ethical and social, suffered by Henrietta herself, this film left that out to tell a thinly layered story of how the history of the HeLa cells line was swept under the rug and how the Lacks family was kept in the dark. It is but one facet to Henrietta’s story. To fully understand the impact of Henrietta and HeLa, the science, history, and pain all need to be at the forefront. I was excited about the adaptation but after watching this film I was left feeling empty and enraged. Even the closing scene of the film focused on Skloot’s tears over the loss of Deborah, glossing over the end of Deborah’s life.
If you want to learn the truth behind the HeLa story and fully understand Henrietta’s life and journey dealing with cervical cancer, do yourself a favor and read the book. Hopefully, this film will at the very least pique the curiosity of its viewers to pick up ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.” It is a book everyone should have on their shelves, and there’s still plenty to gain from it after having watched the movie.