No Concessions: Oprah & the HeLa Cells

Saturday night HBO premiered the Oprah Winfrey-led film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on the New York Times best-selling book. Lacks tells a particularly American story of race and healthcare as a freelance writer seeks to uncover the untold life of medical science’s most valuable patient. What she and the youngest Lacks child discover is just how strong familial ties are bound against time and space.


Just who was Henrietta Lacks you ask? She was an African American woman whose cancer cells were taken for research by John Hopkins Medical School. After passing from cervical cancer in 1951, her cells remained in Hopkins possession for years to come, enabling them to finally sustain cells’ outside of the body. Known as HeLa cells, they became the basis of almost every major medical advancement including stem cell research,  cornea replacement and even AIDS research. Her family was never notified nor compensated for the use of their mother’s cells. A hospital is not obligated to receive permission from family or kin as long as the deceased patients’ name is changed. Henrietta Lacks became Helen Lane, and the rest became untold history.

Fast forward to a little over a decade ago, when Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) comes across Lacks’ identity and wants more information about the woman who changed science in America. This leads her to Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) and her siblings, all in their early 50s and 60s, residing in Baltimore. The film traces Skloot and Lacks’ eventual friendship in uncovering the truth of what happened to Henrietta. It also chronicles the unhealthy distrust African Americans have of our medical system.

Running a little over a hour and a half, the film moves pretty steadily, using flashbacks of memories to re-tell the Lacks’ lives without Henrietta and what other perils plagued them. Winfrey is incredible as Deborah, a passionate woman who’s determination for truth has left her physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. By the time Skloot found her, Lacks had experienced a devastating mental episode, leaving her body stricken with innumerable ailments.  In many ways Oprah reminded me of her character in Beloved haunted by the search for something, someone stolen from her.

The cast was stellar with Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry (fresh from her The Get Down gig) portraying Henrietta in flashbacks. While Winfrey owned every scene she was in, two actors challenged her force. House of Cards’ Reg E. Cathey shines as Winfery’s youngest brother. The two share a special bond because of the ugliness that defiled their childhood. Second is John Beasley as a cousin who in a pivotal scene, rocks viewers souls as he deescalates a maniac Deborah.

Where I thought the film lacked in more flashback scenes, it made up for in its underlying, harsh reality — systemic racism infects everything. The film highlights the abusive relationship African Americans have with the healthcare system. Lacks’ story is one of many in which white lab coasts have treated black bodies like they always have — as property to scratch and prod for personal gain. Tales of black people disappearing from the streets of Baltimore to the clutches of John Hopkins are supported by tragedies like the Tuskegee Experiment — in which black men were unknowingly infected with syphilis and not treated, to view the disease’s effects on the human body. More recently discovered, PoC women being sterilized by abortion clinic professionals. They even covered the disheveled state of mental health — which still seeks major reforms — especially for people of color.

As I digested the magnitude this woman’s black body made in our country’s healthcare system, the medical advancements she created to heal millions of Americans as her children suffered from disease, I couldn’t help but associate this real-life drama with Jordan Peele’s metaphorical statement of appropriation with Get Out. Peele’s antagonists heinously kidnapped blacks’ bodies to replace white ones. Henrietta was secretly hijacked to save millions in a white-supremacy-laden nation. Just as the tale of Katherine Johnson and Hidden Figures laid dormant for ions, there’s no telling how many more narratives sit unknown on the shelves of history.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is available via HBO or HBO Now. The book is offered wherever best-sellers are sold.


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