By now, you’ve probably read or at least scrolled passed one of the many reviews of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that praise Oprah Winfrey’s performance. You’ve probably read the Bim Adewunmi piece for Buzzfeed that Lainey recommended called How Oprah Got Her Acting Groove Back. Few actresses can do what Oprah Winfrey does in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Believe the hype. It shouldn’t be surprising that an Academy Award nominated actress came through with outstanding work – especially in a role as layered as this one—but when it comes to Oprah, her acting abilities are usually overshadowed by her eminence. I’ll call myself out for, at times, being unable to separate Oprah the Actress from the woman we let into our living room every day. Through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Oprah forces you to get over your own sh-t and wake up to her talents. She’s that good. The only problem is that the movie is a mediocre vessel, teetering on being unworthy of such stellar performances. Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a must-watch film that tells a story we should all know, but there were moments I desperately wanted it to live up to its potential.
In Henrietta Lacks, which debuted on HBO on Saturday, Oprah plays Deborah Lacks, the daughter of the black woman whose cells were harvested for scientific research without her consent and led to multiple medical breakthroughs. The movie is based on the book written by Rebecca Skloot, played by Rose Byrne. When I wrote about the movie’s trailer last month, I worried that a story about the intersection of race, scientific ethics, a black woman’s historic contributions and their effect on her family was going to be told through the lens of a white woman. I talked myself out of my concerns because apparently the book (full disclosure: I have not read it) paints a nuanced picture of the uneasy relationship between the rightly apprehensive Deborah and Rebecca, an eager, naïve journalist obsessed with her mother’s story. The movie comes close to capturing this relationship because Rose Byrne and Oprah Winfrey are both great, going toe-to-toe in every scene. Even when Oprah out-acts Rose, it feels like it’s on purpose – like the timid journalist is fading to the background to let her subject shine. But there are times when the story focuses so much on Rebecca’s point of view that it made me uneasy. I understand that it’s an adaptation of Skloot’s book so she’s technically the lead here but when Henrietta Lacks’ life is told through fleeting flashbacks that are only memorable because Renee Ellis Goldsberry is so magnetic, that doesn’t seem fair. It’s Henrietta’s life we’re supposed to be remembering and yet, her life is the part of the film that is the most lacking.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also very much a story about science. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Oprah (also a producer on the film) said this subject matter was one of the things about this project that made her worry.
“I was quite frankly afraid of the science because science is like spinach — people don’t want to take it in, hard to convey it.”
She’s right. The film debuted on the same day thousands of people around the world marched for the importance of scientific research but let’s face it, in film, science is often not sexy. It can be hard to tell a visual story with heart and emotion when its centerpiece is the history of some cells. This is where The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks succeeds. It does a good job of explaining how HeLa cells led to scientific breakthroughs without drowning its audience in jargon. Instead, it focuses on the effects these medical breakthroughs had on the Lacks family. It focuses on a poor family from Baltimore who lost their mother too soon, only to learn that other people were profiting millions from her cells. The family is distrusting of Rebecca Skloot when she shows up and even if the movie only touches on the disturbing history of using African Americans as research subjects without their consent, the family’s suspicion feels real and urgent. Deborah’s paranoia is enhanced by manic episodes that are tough to watch but are a testament to Oprah’s talent. A scene where she recalls the abuse she and her brother Zakaryia (the incomparable Reg E. Cathey) faced at the hands of their aunt and uncle after Henrietta’s death is devastating.
It’s these moments that made me think “Emmy” over and over as I was watching this movie. It’s been a great year for female performances on television so Oprah will probably have some stiff competition but I will be shocked if she’s not recognized for one of the best – if not THE best—performance of her career. To bring it back to Bim Adewunmi’s essay on Oprah, she points out that Oprah’s acting career has been devoted to telling the stories of black women that would otherwise remain untold.
In Sofia and Sethe and Gloria and Annie and Mavis and now Deborah, Oprah is telling specific stories, over and over. These are people we rarely get to see onscreen, and so they do not feel like arbitrary choices.
Oprah’s choices are never arbitrary. They are purposeful and important and they have given us so many specific stories that deserve to be told – especially now. If this is truly Oprah’s “second act” as an actress, it’s perfect timing.
Attached - Oprah out in Beverly Hills on Friday.