29. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The latest HBO movie has no shortage of show-stopping performances, most notably with a ferocious display from Oprah Winfrey. But none of the pieces of this movie ever really come together to make something as immortal as its powerful origin story.

Here’s the skinny: Henrietta Lacks was a woman whose cancer cells became the HeLa line, a massively-influential cell line that helped lead to countless breakthroughs in science. Only problem was that John Hopkins Hospital didn’t act so ethically when getting these cells, keeping her family in the dark about the whole process. This movie focuses a bit on Henrietta’s life, a bit on journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) who is writing a book about her, and a bit about her daughter Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) who is dogged and determined to get the truth out about her mom. These three tales are full and emotion and drama, but by focusing on so many different pieces, it never really adds up to anything more.

In my review of The Lost City of Z, I noted that there is a difficulty adapting books with strong points of view from the author to film. The reason why Into the Wild the book is so much better than Into the Wild the movie is that its John Krakeur telling us the story of Christopher McCandless, while the film is just director Sean Penn telling us the story. Both still good, but McCandless’ story is best heard from Krakeur’s mouth.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks actually does something a bit different by not just telling Henrietta or Deborah Lacks’ stories, but actually depicting journalist Rebecca Skloot writing the story. It’s an interesting and unique take, kind of like if the Into the Wild movie focused on John Krakeur researching Christopher McCandless instead of just Christopher McCandless himself. But we don’t see this movie through character Skloot’s eyes, she’s just a supporting player.

Portraying this movie from Skloot’s perspective, though, would be a great disservice to the Lacks family, whose black background definitely played a huge role to them being treated so poorly by John Hopkins (it probably was the reason that they were treated with such disrespect.)

Really, there was no perfect way to tell this story except by book. This movie passionately tried, but fell short.

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