There’s a great story to be told about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American tobacco farmer who, in 1951, had a tissue sample removed, without her knowledge or consent, from the malignant tumor on her cervix. This one set of cells, nicknamed HeLa, proved to be extremely resilient in laboratory settings, and it revolutionized medical research. But while these “immortal” organisms helped give rise to pharmaceuticals that could combat diseases like cancer and AIDS, the woman from whom they came was never given her due.
White journalist Rebecca Skloot aimed to remedy this situation with her 2010 book, a decade in the making, titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And now that best-seller comes to HBO in a lukewarm 90-minute adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah and Rose Byrne as Skloot. The intentions are good, but the problems are legion, from a score by Branford Marsalis that vacillates wildly between inventive jazziness and sugary treacle to flat, flailing cinematography by, of all people, Sofian El Fani, whose work here in no way approaches the level of his evocative efforts on the Cannes prize-winning features Blue Is the Warmest Color and Timbuktu. The chief issue, however, is the misguided choice to make Deborah and Rebecca’s relationship (the story’s heart and soul) predominantly farcical.
For the first quarter of the film, Rebecca has to charm her way into Deborah’s life, first by meeting with other members of the Lacks family, then proving her lone-wolf commitment to telling Henrietta’s story, free of the influence of those — like the doctors at Johns Hopkins where Henrietta’s cancer was treated — who would downplay the truth of the HeLa cells’ origins. There should be a sense that two very different worlds are being bridged, especially in terms of class and race and this country’s sorry history with both. But the way Winfrey and Byrne (the latter especially, with her tic-heavy, faux-naif facial expressions) play their characters’ rapport is way too screwball, more akin to an aged-up, gender-reversed Superbad. Rebecca stumbles forth in her research. Deborah scolds Rebecca. The two unite over some shared revelation about Henrietta’s life. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
With the exception of Renée Elise Goldsberry — who gives a half-saintly, half-corporeal dignity to Henrietta herself in a few brief flashback scenes — director and co-writer George C. Wolfe, a terrific theater artist, seems to have instructed Winfrey, Byrne and the rest of the cast to play to some nonexistent rafters. And this only pays off twice. First, in a brief appearance by Courtney B. Vance as Sir Lord Keenan Coefield, a con man, as slick and snake-charming as his bombastic name, out to milk the Lacks family and their bad fortune for all it’s worth. And second, in the film’s climactic stretch, when Deborah rails against the stormy heavens like Queen Lear, a wrenching section that feels as if it was ghost-helmed by Lee Daniels. Most everyone else (and there are incredible talents here like Reg E. Cathey, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Leslie Uggams) pops up to unconvincingly over-emote or merely to lend their charismatic presence to a worthy subject that deserves a much stronger execution.
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Reg E. Cathey, Rocky Carroll, Courtney B. Vance, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Leslie Uggams
Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenplay: Peter Landesman, Alexander Woo, George C. Wolfe
Based on the book by: Rebecca Skloot
Executive producers: Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, Oprah Winfrey, Carla Gardini, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Premieres: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)