About 15 minutes into HBO’s highly anticipated The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I realized I’d been tricked. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. Run amok. According to the press release, the trailer and all manner of publicity associated with the film’s release, this was to be a story about the life of Henrietta Lacks, “as told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description of director George C. Wolfe’s movie. If you were under the impression that Oprah Winfrey, playing Deborah, was the star of the movie, you were also led astray. The star of this tale—a tale about a black woman whose cells were unwittingly taken by white doctors (who would go on to lie about her name, among many other things), and her black family’s struggle to learn about her life, death and immortality—is none other than Rose Byrne. Byrne is a white woman, playing a white science journalist who becomes fascinated by Lacks’ tale and goes on to write the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The film is told from her perspective, and although Winfrey’s Deborah plays a large part, it is ultimately a movie about one white woman’s fight to bring justice to the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. And everyone gets in her way—white people in the medical field and, wait for it, even the black family she’s trying to help. According to this film, Skloot suffered many setbacks, particularly in the form of the distrusting Lacks family, and nevertheless, she persisted.
I know you want to believe I’m exaggerating, and I want to believe it, too. Because, after all, it just can’t be. It can’t be that Hollywood could take a story that has everything to do with a black woman, her family and her legacy and still manage to make it about a white woman. It can’t be that Oprah Winfrey would allow her own, wildly fascinating and passionate role to somehow play second fiddle, in a film that she’s also producing. And to be clear, Deborah Lacks is an interesting character, and Winfrey delivers a strong performance. The film might have even succeeded, if the same could be said for Byrne’s character. But for some reason, Byrne (whose previous work I’ve always respected and enjoyed) is practically one-note here: a constantly smiling but oft-confused woman in the midst of Deborah’s unpredictability and mental and emotional instability.
Not once do we ever learn why Rebecca Skloot was so captivated by the story of Henrietta Lacks. She has no personal life, no backstory, no passion behind her eyes (until one quite explosive scene towards the end of the film—literally one scene where she becomes something recognizably human, instead of the robotic, well-meaning caricature she plays for the duration of the film). Had she been a well-written, captivating and compelling individual (and I suspect the real Rebecca Skloot probably is), the film still would have had no business centering her experience over Deborah’s, but at least the racism of it all might have played better. And I know it pains you to hear that, too: that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a racist rendering of a story you so wanted to learn about. But what else can we call it? I can use words like “de-centering” or “erasure,” but sometimes we have to call it like it is. Towards the end of the film, Deborah Lacks looks into Rebecca Skloot’s eyes and says, “You gotta promise me something: You can’t let me or nobody else stop you from writing this book.” In this moment, Lacks admits that she needs Skloot to accomplish this great task and she admits that even she might get in the way. Well, luckily for all of us, Skloot persisted.
And it’s not just Deborah: Everyone in this film is presented as off-the-wall, odd, possibly dangerous (like the one brother who spent a good deal of time incarcerated) or just plain crazy—everyone except for Skloot. The Lacks family has been lied to so many times by institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and by journalists and lawyers, that they’ve no reason to trust one more person who says they have their best interests at heart. Some of the members of the family, including Deborah, struggle from mental health issues, all of which feeds into their paranoia about who she is and what she wants. But what’s offensive about the film is that every wild outburst (and there are many, from the Lacks) is presented through the eyes of Skloot. She is consistently shocked or embarrassed when these outbursts take place; every other scene seems to consist of Skloot, always even-toned and measured, trying to calm down Deborah, or explain science and procedure and other things to poor Deborah, who just doesn’t understand half the time. I suspect the writers (Peter Landesman, Wolfe and Alexander Woo) thought they were, at least, telling the story of two women on a mission to bring justice to Lacks’ story, as Deborah and Rebecca’s scenes make up the majority of the movie. But it’s Rebecca’s perspective that carries us from the start of the film to the end.
Whether the creators explicitly wanted it to be or not, this is a film about the white gaze on a complex and often troubled black family, and that’s the last film I thought I was going to see when I heard about this production. There’s a scene where Skloot watches in shock and awe as one of Deborah’s elder family members prays over her, in an attempt to ease her out of one of her breakdowns. In the next scene Skloot, grinning like a goon, asks him, “What does that feel like?” What is sacred to them—the spirit of the Holy Ghost—is so weird and also kinda funny to her. She just has to know what it’s all about, and yet we don’t see any real compassion or understanding on her part, of these people and their world. Again, I don’t want to believe that the real Rebecca Skloot was like this, but the film certainly presents her in this way. And there are other scenes that just don’t make sense for this character we’ve come to know. She manages to, for example, get an entire generation that refuses to “speak on the dead,” to suddenly—with very little prompting from her—tell wonderful, heart-warming stories about Henrietta; these are stories they haven’t even shared with Deborah, but there’s something about Skloot that just opens them right up. It’s not that this is impossible or unbelievable, it’s just that the script never tells us what it is about Skloot that makes all this happen. In another scene, Deborah tells Skloot that she’s so happy that Skloot is getting answers from the doctors and scientists who’ve shut her out for years. Deborah’s no fool, she knows why. “You just keep being white,” she laughs. They both laugh, and it’s a hilarious and appropriate line… in a different movie. Like, one actually centered on an intelligent but troubled and fiercely passionate black woman and her family, as they welcome in a strange, smiley, smart white woman who comes from a different world from them, but ultimately proves herself useful and trustworthy—unlike most of the strange, smiley white people they’ve encountered over the years.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had everything it needed to be a powerful work of art. The material and the characters were all there. The story of the Lacks family—though it does not get the treatment it deserves here—is powerful. Deborah herself is a woman grieving the mother she never got to know, while grieving a sister who was institutionalized, while grieving a childhood marred by abuse at the hands of the family that was supposed to protect her. Imagine that story. Imagine a film centered on white institutions like Johns Hopkins and mental health facilities all over America, using black bodies (and cells) with no concern for the black people who supply them. Imagine a film about a black family, told through the eyes of… wait for it… the black family.
In spite of my criticisms, I advise everyone to see the film, for a number of reasons. We should all know about this story, and so the film succeeds in getting the name of Henrietta Lacks out there, at the very least. Winfrey’s performance is compelling, and there’s a Courtney B. Vance cameo that results in one of the best scenes in the entire film. Although she has only a handful of scenes, Renée Elise Goldsberry brings life to Henrietta Lacks in the movie’s flashbacks. There’s a real warmth that comes across in those moments, and it leaves a powerful imprint on the story of this woman. When you see her, dancing, or on a ferris wheel, or cooking for her friends, it somehow makes sense that her cells were the ones that changed the world.
And so I confess that this film technically had everything I wanted in it. Everything I mentioned, which didn’t get its just due, or which was poorly presented, was still there, in some way or another—making the film all the more frustrating. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is, therefore, one more powerful example of the fact that presentation is everything, and writers, directors and producers need to resist the urge to present every single story from that same perspective we’re all used to seeing. The world does not need the white gaze on the black family ever again in film (or otherwise). Our stories, presented on their own merits and through our own eyes—as this film should have been—are actually good enough on their own.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.