NEW YORK, April 21 — One of the most acclaimed nonfiction books of 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, began as an investigation of a medical miracle but became a gripping, poignant story about racism, shoddy scientific ethics and a sprawling family’s painful experiences with both.
If it sounds as if effectively truncating such an intricate, provocative book into a 93-minute movie would be nearly impossible, well, the film version that has its premiere Saturday night on HBO proves the point. This fascinating tale really wanted to be a six- or eight-episode miniseries.
The movie, also titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was directed by George C. Wolfe, who had a starry cast at his disposal headed by Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne. It tells a rich and unsettling story that begins with the woman of the title (played in flashbacks by Renée Elise Goldsberry), who died of cancer in 1951 but not before unwittingly making an invaluable contribution to science: Cancer cells that reproduced outside the body.
“In this jar, we have a sample of cancerous human tissue,” Dr George Gey (Reed Birney) explains in a 1950s-style newsreel in the film’s early moments. “What makes this sample so unique is that this is the first cell line we have discovered in over 30 years of trying that can survive and reproduce indefinitely. With this, scientists will be able to perform experiments that they never could on a living human being.”
The cell line (called HeLa, from Lacks’ names) became the basis for a vast amount of medical research, but the movie isn’t about the resulting breakthroughs. It’s about a young author, Rebecca Skloot (Byrne), who goes in search of the woman behind the cell line and encounters a volatile family, assorted mysteries and all sorts of questions about scientific ethics.
Skloot of course wrote the book upon which the movie is based, but she is also a character in the story, a white woman intruding on a black family that at first is not inclined to share information about the matriarch or the rest of the clan. The core relationship in the film is the one between Rebecca and Deborah Lacks (Winfrey, also an executive producer here), one of Henrietta’s daughters, who gradually comes to trust Rebecca and helps her gain access to other family members.
This is Winfrey’s movie in more ways than one: Deborah, a woman who is both hesitant to learn more about her family history and prone to manic episodes, is a whirlwind of a character. You might think it would be impossible at this point for Winfrey to escape her own fame and play a movie role, but she is, remember, an Oscar-nominated actress. She makes it easy to forget the rest and buy into her performance, so much so that scenes with Deborah and Rebecca are a bit of a mismatch.
Skloot has said she was very resistant to making herself a character in the book, and that seems to carry over into the movie. Rebecca does a lot of observing and cajoling, trying to get people to open up to her, but that’s passive stuff. Only in one scene late in the film, a crackling moment when Rebecca loses patience with Deborah’s mood swings, does Byrne get to stretch out.
Courtney B. Vance and Leslie Uggams are among the recognisable stars in smaller roles, but the movie is in such a hurry to cover ground that they make only fleeting impressions. There’s a focus problem here: too many threads, not enough time.
And thus important themes like the exploitation of low-income black people by the medical establishment are noted without being fully examined. The tensions within the Lacks clan are made apparent — family members don’t agree on whether to cooperate with Rebecca or on whether the use of Henrietta’s cells is a good thing — yet we really get to know only Deborah. (Some members of the family have objected to the movie and their portrayal in the book, discord that has been drawing publicity.)
The subplot that is rendered most effectively involves the search for more information about Elsie Lacks, Deborah’s older sister, who as a child was institutionalised at the notorious Crownsville Hospital Centre in Maryland. In a sequence that briefly has the adrenaline of a good detective story, Deborah and Rebecca track down Elsie’s records, which include evidence that she was abused. But the moment is left hanging; too much other material to get to.
So watch the film for a well acted CliffsNotes version of the book — intriguing and thought provoking, but also frustrating. — The New York Times