Some books are just impossible to adapt. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of them. Author Rebecca Skloot’s breathtaking saga of a black woman in 1950s Baltimore is a tour de force that details the way Henrietta Lacks’s cells, removed from her without permission while she was treated for cancer, have continually divided and reproduced for over 50 years. Lacks’s cells have been key in countless experiments for diseases from polio to HIV.
Skloot’s reporting on this woman’s life is dogged and determined; the research into Lacks’ humanity, particularly her children, is heartbreaking and honest. When I started reading the book a few years ago, I briefly side-eyed Skloot’s insertion of herself into the story, a decision she’s spoken about herself recently. “I adamantly did not want to be in the book,” she told the New York Times, explaining that everyone told her she had to be. “I finally realized, Oh, it’s not about me inserting myself into their story; it’s that I become another character in their story.” After a full read, I came to that conclusion myself: that the way Skloot came to the story—and to the family—helped form the narrative.
The book, released in 2010, has since been translated into dozens of languages and added to reading lists at over 250 institutions of higher learning. I want everyone to read this book. But we’re going to have to pretend the movie never happened.
HBO’s film based on the story, which premiered Saturday night, stars Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s daughter, Deborah Lacks Pullum, who spent her life searching out the truth about her mother’s life, death and afterlife. Rose Byrne plays Skloot, determined to win over Deborah and the family of Henrietta Lacks (played in flashbacks by Renée Elise Goldsberry) in order to bring their story to fruition.
First, to be fair, films focused on writers and writing are always tough to pull off. I call it Typety-Type-Type syndrome: Writing is a lonely way of life. You stare at the walls for long periods of time. Then you tap on your computer keyboard. And then tap some more. It’s nothing to watch. As such, when Byrne portrays Skloot, there’s not much to look at there. Byrne does the best she can with a script that often requires her to type and then look off earnestly, waiting desperately for the words to come.
In larger and more important ways, Byrne-as-Skloot is so troublesome that it’s hard to understand how HBO executives (and yes, Oprah, who was one of the executive producers), weren’t able to see it.
The white savior complex in film has existed in Hollywood from the very beginning. And the list now includes one more. It’s distressing that in 2017, when the black experience in film and television is explored with more nuance and texture than ever before, this film serves up tropes, stereotypes and head-scratching, one-note overacting.
Byrne brings to the film wide-eyed innocence and a calm reserve when dealing with Deborah and her family. (After years of being lied to by lawyers, the medical community and the media, all of Henrietta Lacks’s relatives are deservedly wary of those asking for information.) This dichotomy—wanting help from Skloot’s character and wanting to protect themselves as well—does not come across well on screen. Instead, what I saw was a white woman pushing forward with great intentions while dealing with difficult yet deeply spiritual black folks who suffer from mental illness among a myriad of other issues. Deborah vacillates between supporting Skloot’s efforts and pulling away from the project because of unfounded beliefs that Skloot had ulterior motives. Throughout the movie, Skloot has to talk Deborah off the proverbial ledge, doing things like showing her bank statements to prove she’s not being bankrolled by anyone.
(One random thing that really annoyed me as a writer is something I can’t imagine the real Rebecca Skloot would ever do; in one scene, Deborah leans down to the ground in prayer, at the spot where her mother’s unmarked grave is thought to be. She holds hands with a relative and they have a somber moment. Skloot watches them pray, and then pulls out her notebook and starts scribbling. Like, right next to them. While they’re praying. I’m a journalist. I know you get the notes down when you can. But you do not take notes while your subject is praying at her mother’s grave.)
The entire film is through Skloot’s gaze. Look at them pray. Look at them eat. Look at them catch The Holy Ghost. Look at them yell. Look at them be black people. Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Deborah is given equal screen time. But in just about every scene, Byrne is shocked, amused, dismayed, frustrated or scared of something Deborah or her family has done or said. She merely reacts to everyone around her and the flat acting makes it hard to understand why her character was necessary in this version of the story at all.
I guess now I have to discuss Oprah. Can I first say I live for Oprah? I’ve loved her since The Color Purple, which I saw on opening night with my mom, and I cried pretty much the whole way through. Oprah is Life. I watched her show from 1986 until the finale and I am a faithful acolyte.
But Oprah’s performance was perplexing to me. And I don’t think it’s because of her talent. I think it’s because she’s Oprah. And pretty much nothing she can do at this point can make me un-see her. As soon as the camera panned across her for the first time, my first thought was, huh. I wonder how they got all her hair under that wig. Cause Oprah has a lot of hair. Is it braided? Did she actually cut it? No way.
For the first 20 minutes, I just couldn’t focus on anything else besides her hair, her outfits and how well she can limp. Now, we all know Winfrey is an amazing actress. But for this film, a lesser-known actress would have been more powerful. (Oprah has said she ultimately took on the role because Deborah wished for her to.) Deborah was a complex headstrong woman. Having her played by a complex headstrong woman who is also a first-name-only household name felt like overkill. It also required her to overact when she’s best when she can smolder.
Throughout the film, there are random flashbacks showing us young Henrietta Lacks, doing things like serving food at home, having fun at a carnival, going for medical treatment, polishing her nails. The flashbacks are all just brief minutes. But I kept wishing that, unlike the book, the entire film was told from Lacks’s perspective and set mostly in the ’40s and ’50s. In the book, Skloot did an excellent job fleshing out Lacks’s world and what kind of woman she was. It would have been so wonderful seeing her life play out the way it actually did, instead of 90 minutes about how the book was brought to life. Even though I’m so happy that it was—so people can go read it.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times bestseller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.