David Zurawik

Oprah soars in HBO's 'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

We have been here before.

In 2004, HBO made a docudrama about medicine, research, prejudice and race at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s and '50s. That film, "Something the Lord Made," starring Alan Rickman and Mos Def, won three Emmy Awards including one for Best Television Movie.


"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," starring Oprah Winfrey and debuting April 22 on HBO, is better than that. There is not an Emmy big enough to do justice to Winfrey's performance as Deborah Lacks, the indomitable daughter of a Turners Station woman whose cancerous cells changed the face of medicine after they were harvested without her knowledge or consent at Johns Hopkins in 1951.

I am not a fan of docudrama, an often-contested hybrid of fact and fiction in which the historical record can be shaped as much by entertainment imperatives as what actually happened in the past. A few showbiz tweaks in search of a more compelling story and higher prime-time ratings can lead to the outright distortion of national memory. And, at some point, we start to lose a true sense of who we are as people.


This project has indeed been controversial within the Lacks family.

As reported by The Baltimore Sun, Lawrence Lacks, the oldest of five children Henrietta gave birth to before her death at age 31, has been highly critical of Winfrey, HBO and author Rebecca Skloot, who wrote the New York Times best-seller on which the film is based. He has challenged the accuracy and motives of Skloot, who is a co-executive-producer on the film. Winfrey is one of five executive producers.

HBO responded with a statement to The Sun saying the feelings expressed by Lawrence Lacks are not shared by several others members of the family, five of whom were paid consultants on the film.

Crown Publishing Group said in a statement to The Sun that the "veracity" of Skloot's book has not been challenged since its publication in 2010.

After decades of reporting and writing about docudrama, I can tell you such debates about the "docu" half of the equation are rarely, if ever, fully resolved. Years after "Game Change," the HBO docudrama about the 2008 presidential election aired, Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate that year, was still denouncing the film as a "hit job." It comes with the territory when you purport to be telling historical truth instead of just a good story.

I can also tell you that no one does docudrama like HBO.

From 1997's "Miss Evers' Boys," about the infamous government medical experiments on poor African-Americans, to "Game Change," the premium cable channel has dramatized more modern history than any channel this side of PBS.

It is the "drama" part of the equation that makes "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" such an exceptional TV production. And the adaptation of Skloot's book by Peter Landesman, Alexander Woo and George C. Wolfe is the rock on which that excellence is built.


On one track, they have actress Rose Byrne as Skloot, a young, relatively unknown writer, on a quest to investigate and tell the story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells.

The narrative of an author trying to write an article or book about someone's life is so common as to risk being a cliche, at least since the 1941 classic "Citizen Kane."

But Wolfe, who also directed the film, weds Skloot's narrative to a much deeper one by Henrietta's daughter, Deborah. This quest is to know the mother who died when Deborah was only 2 years old. It is steeped in psychological and even mythic resonance. And once the two women agree to join forces on their quests, the film takes off.

Even better than the script is the performance of Winfrey, who plays Deborah as a character of courage and will battling to overcome the psychological scars of a childhood and adolescence without a mother to protect her. Winfrey plays the role sky-high, wide open and without a safety net.

Almost no one in the family wants Deborah to help Skloot. Lawrence thinks the writer is working for Johns Hopkins, whom he feels has exploited his family for decades.

And at points, Deborah seems to share his view challenging Skloot to prove she's not an agent of exploitation sent to further prey on the family, which says it has received no compensation for the cells. But at other points, she is the one encouraging Skloot, opening doors to a troubled family history and ultimately joining her on this road trip into her family's past.


Winfrey takes Deborah from paranoia and despair to steely determination, faith, hope and even a few moments of fun. In one scene, she's physically assaulting Skloot; in another she's playfully teasing the writer about the wreck of a car she drives.

At its lighter moments on the road, the relationship between Deborah Lacks and Skloot makes "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" feel like a buddy film. That's a welcome break from the deeper end of the pool, where it's heartbreak, sexual abuse, mental illness, death and sorrow.

Give Byrne some credit here. While Winfrey's performance is a towering one, Byrne manages to hold her own in scene after scene with her.

Byrne made me a believer during a scene in a motel room that climaxes in Deborah's paranoia getting the best of her. She berates and then physically assaults the writer, who to this point has been all smiles and accommodation in hopes of maintaining access for her book.

But once Deborah lays hands on Skloot, Byrne's character comes raging back with a startling force. In that moment, standing toe to toe, Byrne is Winfrey's acting equal.

The relationship between Skloot and Deborah Lacks also allows the filmmakers to layer in a running conversation about race with this white journalist trying to understand the history and culture of the Lacks family through whatever pieces of it Deborah will share.


That respectful dance between Skloot and the family raises larger issues in the film as to the way powerful, white institutions like Johns Hopkins in the 1940s and '50s treated people of color and sometimes violated their privacy, dignity and fundamental human rights in the name of medicine and research.

Hopkins circa 1951 is shown lying about the source of the cells and trying to erase Henrietta Lacks from history.

More than a decade after her death, researchers are shown lying to the Lacks family as it asks for blood samples from Henrietta's children. They are told the hospital is testing them for cancer, but it's actually using them for research.

Arrogant, indifferent and dishonest are the kindest adjectives I can use to describe the institution's attitude and treatment of the family in these scenes.

Viewers saw this Hopkins from an earlier era before in "Something the Lord Made" with the story of Vivien Thomas, an African-American assistant to a prestigious Hopkins doctor, initially denied the credit and status he deserved as a partner in helping that doctor find a new surgical technique to save infants' lives

But Hopkins today is shown in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" as a welcoming place to her children when they come to see images of her genes under high-powered microscopes.


A glimpse of the larger story of the ways in which racism led to horrors of medical research is depicted in a stop at Crownsville Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital that was founded in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. It closed in 2004. Deborah Lacks and Skloot are trying to find out about a sister of Deborah's who was sent there as a child.

Through luck and a friendly archivist, they do manage to find the girl's file, including a picture showing her head bent at a grotesque angle. The image greatly upsets Deborah.

It's explained that patients were used for medical experiments. In the case of Deborah's sister, holes were drilled in her head so that fluid around the brain would drain out and better images of the brain could be captured. The process left the girl's head cocked in that horribly sad pose of helplessness and pain.

The filmmakers re-create the making of that photograph, and it is chilling.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is an epic story, and I am not just talking about the HeLa genes and all they have meant to medical research and millions of lives. There is an epic story in terms of the pain endured by members of her family once Henrietta Lacks died. Beyond the child at Crownsville, three of the children went to live with relatives, where the film shows two of them being horribly abused.

The psychological scars left by losing their mother and then having their hopes and spirits crushed cannot be communicated in words. What does heartbreaking even mean in connection with being placed in an institution where you are used for medical experimentation — or being raped or beaten as an adolescent by your new guardians?


But thanks to the power of Winfrey's performance, viewers feel that pain at a depth television rarely delivers.

There is a scene near the end of the film where a lifetime of hurt explodes inside Deborah's heart and mind as a fierce thunderstorm rages outside. A cousin prays over and tries to comfort her as she gives voice to her pain.

This is not TV, as the HBO ad campaign of the 1990s used to say. This is "King Lear" at The Globe. Or Oedipus raging against the gods in an open-air hillside theater in ancient Greece.

But unlike such tragedies, there is a final victory here in Deborah finding a connection to her mother — and HBO offering viewers a chance to bear witness.