Oprah in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at March 16, 2017 18:38:20 March 16, 2017 18:38:20

Can we stop pretending Oprah is going to run for president? I’ve been catching up on the Internet since being away on vacation for ten days with sporadic-at-best wifi and most Oprah-related headlines I’ve seen have been about her hypothetical political career. Gayle shot down the rumours. Oprah herself has shot down the rumours. It’s not happening. As much as we would like Oprah to swoop in and save the free world, it’s probably not going to happen. Let’s move on, shall we?

Yesterday, the new trailer for Oprah’s HBO movie, an adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was released and to me, it’s way more interesting than #Oprah2020 because this was real life. Oprah plays the daughter of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cells are responsible for several medical breakthroughs. In 2010, writer Rebecca Skloot wrote a book about Lacks detailing how her cells were used without her consent—while she was dying of cancer— to contribute to scientific discoveries like the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah was instrumental in telling her story to Skloot, played by Rose Byrne. Renee Elise Goldsberry of The Good Wife and, of course, HAMILTON, plays Henrietta Lacks through flashbacks. Angelica! Work!

The story is fascinating and it’s the type of story we’re itching for after Hidden Figures – stories about the black women who contributed to history without getting the recognition they deserved. Lacks’ contribution was taken without her consent but the reality is that the cell line of a black woman is responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in science – a fact that was hidden for too long. Henrietta Lacks’ cell line is referred to as HeLa and before a Rolling Stone article in 1976; medical researchers said it was shorthand for Helen Lane. You see what they did there? Biotech companies made millions off of Henrietta’s cells. There are still scientific papers published about the HeLa cell line every f-cking day. The more details I read about her story, the angrier I get.

The trailer is good. Really good. Feel free to yell at me for this admission but I’ve always had a hard time separating Oprah “YOU GET A CAR” Winfrey from whatever character she is attempting to portray. I grew up idolizing Oprah. I wanted to be Oprah. I watched her every day. She was like family. Oprah is arguably the most famous personality on the planet. I’ve mentioned it before when I’ve written about celebrities who attempt to act: convincing us that they are someone else is the hardest part. At times in her acting career, Oprah has succeeded brilliantly at disappearing into a role (The Color Purple, Beloved) and at times she has not (The Butler). To her credit, it may have been more about the quality of the film than her acting but let’s just say I’m usually a bit reluctant when Oprah is listed as an actress instead of a producer or a host. After watching the trailer for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, though, I have no reservations about Oprah, The Actress. When she gives a smiling Rose Byrne a once over and nails the line, “I hope I don’t regret this,” I was sold. You’re probably sick of me telling you when I cry at things so I’ll just skip the part where I teared up watching this. 

That brings me to Rose Byrne. I didn’t know a lot about Henrietta Lacks story before the news of this adaptation broke so when I first heard that Rose Byrne was playing the writer who brought Henrietta’s story to light, I had flashbacks of Emma Stone’s white saviour role in The Help. According to a few reviews I read of Rebecca Skloot’s book, her relationship with Deborah was complex and combative. It looks like that relationship will be explored in the movie and if that’s the case, I’m into it.

Finally, shout out to the criminally underrated Reg E. Cathey and the incomparable Courtney B. Vance who round out the cast.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks airs on April 22nd.



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