The 2010 book ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ has been on my to-be-read pile since it came out, but I never got around to it. I was hesitant to see the HBO television film version of it because I wanted to read it first, but there is only so much time in the world and this film is so tantalizing in theory that I just had to watch it anyway.
Maybe I should have read the book instead. Directed by George C Wolfe, the film version is a mess. There is no focus on it, and I felt that there was a lot to the story that didn’t make it on screen. Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were taken from her, and for year has been used for all kinds of medical research, from cancer to AIDS. She and her family were never notified of it, and never got compensation for it even though it was sold. It was also known as the HeLa cell because she did not authorize the removal of those cells, and cannot be credited by her real name.
Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. Winfrey gives a great organic performance, and she has a lot of challenging scenes which she all pass with flying colors. But every scene of hers plays like a ‘highlight’ so it plays like she is auditioning for an award each and every time she appears. After a while, it got exhausting to watch. She surrounds herself with more than competent actors, but they are all there to provide background for each of her shining moments.
This was a film I really wanted to love, and it disappoints me more than I barely like it.