Montecito resident Oprah Winfrey recently made one of her too-infrequent steps boldly into the mass cultural spotlight, in a thespian sense, and reminds us why she really should make a habit of doing so more often. In the utterly and literally unique tale of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO, Winfrey’s commanding presence — by turns coolly and righteously indignant, warmly and collaboratively activist, and cathartically heated — is certainly one of the reasons to tune in, aside from the socially, medically, ethically, and racially charged resonances of its backstory.
Based on the best-selling book by Rebecca Skloot, Henrietta Lacks tells the true tale of the African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 whose cells, which were successfully harvested and replicated, eventually contributed to important research on cancer treatment, the AIDS Cocktail, the polio cure, and other medical breakthroughs. And yet the decision was made to keep her name anonymous, changing it to Helen Lane and hiding the identity behind the generic code word HeLa. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey) tussles and ultimately rallies with journalist Skloot (Rose Byrne) in bringing the identity and life story of her heroic mother to public light, an effort in the crosshairs of this film.
Secondarily, the book and TV film go inside the inside, conveying the story of the struggle to make the true story public. Suspicious of attempts to cash in on the Lacks controversy, the family is quick to suspect and shun freelance writer Skloot when she attempts to penetrate the family — and the family’s — trust. Eventually, but never predictably, the reporter becomes endeared and entrusted to set the record straight, bucking dubious and racist schemes by Johns Hopkins and the medical industry to keep the Lacks name secret for decades.
If director George C. Wolfe’s HBO project fails to reach that critical level of artistry where we broach the question, “Is this TV production encroaching on the caliber and care of a film film?,” it has the power of a good story (and, among other things, the power of a good musical score by Branford Marsalis) to magnetize us. We happily sink into the small-screen movie’s narrative, which unveils not only this one mid-century black woman’s humble life, but also the conditions of life in the community and the American black rural experience, from juke joints to hallelujah zones to dark chapters of abuse, the subject of a particularly harrowing flashback sequence with Winfrey’s momentary, convincing undoing.
In a broader context, TV’s Henrietta Lacks follows suit in a screen season that has been an inspiration in terms of evening up the score of African-American contributions to the pool of film/TV work of note — from Moonlight’s well-deserved Oscar hosanna (sorry, La La folks) to Denzel Washington’s triumphant Fences feat and, most relevant here, the crowd-pleasing, warm, fuzzy biz of Hidden Figures, another remarkable true-life tale of an African-American woman (and women) making an important impact on America’s progress, out of sight and mind of America’s awareness.
If Figures gives due credit to black women’s role in NASA and the Space Race, Henrietta Lacks casts long-overdue light on the genuinely “immortal” role of a black woman’s impact on health and wellness in the past half-century, on a continuing, cellular level. Even Hollywood wouldn’t have dared to invent such a crazy notion. HeLa is the hero of this story and will outlive us all.