HBO’s Hollywoodized Henrietta
by Erica Babb
After the success of Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times Best Seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a film adaptation was released by HBO and directed by George C. Wolfe in 2017. At first glance, this seems like a triumph for those trying to raise awareness about Henrietta Lack’s situation and humanize her. This is because films have several methods to reach a wider audience that books lack. According to the Harvard Crimson article “Watching, Not Reading,” the author, Jacob Drucker, argues that “as visual, rather than textual, stimulus . . . [films] are better vectors to reach and inform a vast audience” (4). One could watch an hour film that presented the same information as a 300-page book. In turn, our busy, modern society pushes films as a more efficient way to consume information. The author further cements this argument: “Concrete images of film are easier to remember long after their display than the imagined ones required for reading” (Drucker 4). In an interview by Californian Magazine author Katia Savchuk, Skloot agrees with the notion that “The emotional impact of seeing the story brought to life with real people was powerful.” Not only are films quicker at delivering the information, but the visual and auditory aspects aid in learning compared to the confined readings of a book. This is especially useful for portraying a person’s life during a historical time period.
Although the film adaptation of the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is supposed to focus on humanizing Henrietta and exposing the unethicality behind her situation, the film’s rhetorical strategies instead focus on Skloot and fabricated conflicts to create drama. The film fails to recover the life of Henrietta, and she is once again reduced to a clump of cells.
Who was Henrietta Lacks? That’s exactly the question that Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, set out to answer. HeLa cells were cervical cancer cells collected from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks in 1951 by Johns Hopkins Hospital. The cells were known as “immortal”—the cancerous cells continued to divide and replicate, whereas normal cells previously collected for lab cultivation only survived a few days. Since the cell line had an––essentially––unlimited supply, this accelerated the amount of experiments dealing with the cells. Several medical accomplishments and scientific discoveries resulted from this. Some of the most important vaccination developments, such as the polio vaccine and the HPV vaccine, can be credited to HeLa cells. The cells were also massive contributors in recent scientific findings like the famous Human Genome Project. Despite the original cells being collected over half a century ago, they maintain great relevance in the scientific community in the present.
However, despite Henrietta’s significant contribution to science and medicine, little is known about her. Rebecca Skloot experienced the startling lack of information about Henrietta firsthand during one of her biology classes. When Skloot inquired about the type of woman Henrietta was, she was left uninformed. It was from that point that she was determined to humanize the woman behind such great accomplishments. Over the course of a decade, Skloot investigated the hidden past of Henrietta Lacks and the uncovered emotional baggage of the Lacks family in order to properly convey Henrietta’s life.
Skloot maintains a greater focus on Henrietta’s family throughout the biography compared to the film. Before the first chapter, there is a small piece dedicated to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, in which the section gives a first-person account of her experience. The first-hand frustrations she feels about her lack of knowledge of her mother and the irony of those outside of the family benefiting financially off of Henrietta’s cells are clearly described. Although it is evident that Deborah is frustrated in the film, the audience only receives a third-person account from Skloot’s point of view. The audience only sees blind frustration for most of the beginning and does not understand the true reasons behind Deborah’s feelings until the film is half over.
A film’s time restriction results in the HBO adaptation oversimplifying the depth of Henrietta’s experience. In the book, Skloot describes in a first-person narrative of Henrietta’s moment of diagnosis and the events leading up to her cervical cancer. Meanwhile, the film adaptation sugar coats her story. For instance, Henrietta’s given name, Loretta Pleasant, is a detail revealed in the book. This is ironic, since the film demonized Henrietta’s name being changed to Helen by news and science articles at the time, yet failed to mention anything about her birth-given name. Unlike the film, Skloot goes into great detail about Henrietta’s upbringing and younger years before cancer struck her life, as well as the controversies that arose. Skloot admits this downfall of films herself in an interview with California Magazine: “I had 400 pages to tell the story; in a 90-minute movie, many things inevitably get left out.” Due to the time constraints of a film, the creators attempted to push too many issues, and as a result sacrificed the audience’s impact.
Rather than providing the audience a visual representation of Henrietta’s life while battling cancer and growing up in the Jim Crow era, instead, the film adaptation focuses on Skloot’s journey in writing her biography. A film provides a unique experience to the audience. Instead of simply reading information, a movie provides a visual and auditory learning opportunity: This method for conveying Henrietta’s life would have been the most effective. Although a first-person narrative reveals to readers every innermost thought of the character, Henrietta isn’t a fictional character and she wasn’t alive to tell Skloot her first-person account of the experience like Henrietta’s daughter Deborah was. While a third person perspective can be “difficult to establish a connection to the reader,” according to a NY Book Editor article, it has the benefit of allowing a “broader perspective” (“All About Point of View”). Therefore, it would be more accurate to present Henrietta in the third person, which is what the scenes in the film did; however, Henrietta’s screen time is less than five minutes despite the film being about her. Many of the people watching or reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks have not lived through the Jim Crow era, so it would be difficult for the audience to correctly visualize the circumstances and the environment that Henrietta lived through when reading. Due to the startling lack of scenes involving Henrietta, the film fails to utilize this learning tool in order to evoke the same message as the biography.
The HBO film adaptation sacrifices accuracy and Skloot’s goal in her writing. In the featured article “Getting Historical Movies Right: Hollywood vs. Historians,” the author, Karen Rile, uses the recent historical-drama movie Selma to argue her point about the dangers of historical inaccuracies. In the film, it shows LBJ needed to be convinced by Martin Luther King Jr. to approve of the Voting Rights Act, when in reality, both men collaborated on the bill. While Rile recognizes that scenes such as this create a “dramatic tension” to keep the viewers engaged in the truth of racism in the civil rights era, the “fabrication blurs the record, particularly for audiences who are likely to accept what they see in historical movies as fact” (par. 2). Given the genre of the film—drama—the focus is on creating conflicts to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. This is especially problematic in the film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
One way the film forces itself to adhere to the genre and create inaccuracies is the insertion of common Hollywood tropes and conflicts. One of the several tropes features a white savior complex between Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks. According to Faima Bakar, author of “What is a White Saviour Complex?”, the concept can be defined as “a white person who acts to help non-white people, but in a context which can be perceived as self-serving”. This trope can be seen in other famous movies such as The Help and The Blind Side. In The Muse article “The Immortal Life of White Saviors and Black Stories,” Aliya King analyses the problematic highlight of race. King explains, “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” (8). The white woman, Rebecca Skloot, has to rescue a black family who is portrayed as mentally unstable. King also brings up how some portrayals of Skloot are unrealistic. For example, there is one scene where Deborah and a family member are praying at Henrietta’s grave. During this scene Skloot scribbles down notes right next to them. This is extremely inappropriate behavior that most journalists, let alone most people, would know better not to do. Throughout the film, the audience is looking from the perspective of Skloot: “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” (9). The viewers are simply witnessing Skloot reacting to everything around her, and the film portrays her as an outsider experiencing an exaggerated culture shock to the family. There are multiple scenes in the film where others in society point out Deborah and her family’s skin color, but Skloot’s behavior is in contrast since she ‘dares’ to associate and stick up for them. For instance, when Skloot questions one of the Johns Hopkins doctors about the time Deborah misleadingly had her blood drawn as a child, the doctor nonchalantly flexes his white superiority and intelligence: “I suspect there was no effort to explain anything. . . It’s not like those people would’ve understood anyway” (Wolfe The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). While it is acknowledged that Johns Hopkins, and all the hospitals at the time, had racially unequal practices and treatments, even a doctor in the twenty-first century reveals to a journalist his racial prejudices and does not own up to any mistakes. Skloot was once again presented to possess superior morality by displaying a face of disdain, which appears to be another instance to push the white savior complex.
Another inaccuracy in reality and history is seen in Henrietta’s overly bright flashback scenes. While the film attempts to demonstrate Henrietta’s character with blasts from the past, the few scenes she was featured in deeply exaggerate the type of person she was. The AVclub’s article notes, “At least Oprah,” who plays Deborah, “shines in the scattered, schmaltzy Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks,” (PenzeyMoog). The author notes that “each flashback to Henrietta is saturated in Instagram-warm filters, the sun-dappled ‘50s-era sets unceasingly accompanied by children’s out-of-frame laughter” (PenzeyMoog). She argues that the director’s cinematographic strategies rob Henrietta’s character depth, flattening her to the “stock treatment of dead characters seen in flashback” (5). This treatment includes an angelic portrayal of the dead. It was already evident from the interviews Skloot had conducted in the film that Henrietta was an energetic and selfless woman who was beloved by the community. In one flashback for instance, she was catering a get-together at her house. One of the closest people in her life described how she would feed people who weren’t even family because Henrietta considered everyone to be family. In the scene, she had to have fed at least thirty people in her seemingly large, expensive house. This seems highly unrealistic considering her poor background. The purpose was to portray Henrietta in an angelic light, even at the expense of realism. In another scene, during her hospitalization, any man who could visit her did. There were over thirty men lined up at her hospital room in the flashback. The purpose is to once again demonstrate how beloved she was by the community, but particularly by men in this scene. This appears to be unrealistic since she was married at the time and over thirty men all at once were able to free themselves from their own responsibilities to visit her. It is unclear why it is only men that visit her; although, the purpose might illustrate her as more desirable through the lens of a man. These alterations in reality discussed are one of several ways Henrietta is reduced to background noise in a film supposedly about her.
A more realistic and impactful flashback might include the harsh realities Henrietta had to face as a black woman in the 1940s, rather than a romantically painted, false reality. Henrietta grew up in a time of racial segregation, a heavy presence of the KKK, and attempts to marginalize African Americans through Jim Crow laws and vigilante efforts––a far cry from the rose-colored flashbacks featured in the HBO film. While the film highlights the unjust medical practices regarding patient consent with Henrietta, it fails to show anything more. By painting a perfect picture, aside from the extraction of her cancer cells, the film glosses over America’s racist history and fails to humanize Henrietta. By doing so, the goal of raising awareness for Henrietta’s life falls flat.
Although Wolfe’s selection of cast is full of famous and well-received actors—most notably Oprah—it undermines both the film’s dramatic genre and the original message Skloot tries to deliver in her biography. King brings up an excellent point in her critique about Oprah Winfrey playing Deborah Lacks. She argues that it distracts her from the movie: because Oprah is such a famous figure in our culture, it is difficult for the audience to see her as a character, especially one that is portrayed as unintelligent and mentally ill. King recounts her initial thoughts on the film: “As soon as the camera panned across [Oprah] for the first time, my first thought was. . . I wonder how they got all her hair under that wig” (11). It is difficult for King and most of the viewers to un-see Oprah and instead see Deborah. While there are other famous actors such as Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays Henrietta, the author believes that a celebrity who has become a common “first-name-only household name” is too popular to play Deborah (12). She goes on to suggest a more low-key actress would have been far more appropriate for the film. Despite Oprah’s remarkable fame, it is easy to see that if a lesser-known actress s had been selected to play Deborah Lacks, the audience could better immerse themselves in the story.
While Skloot’s book provoked the public to consider the role of ethics in science, the discussion surrounding the film adaptation focused on superficial topics. Although the film garnered great attention from the media, the focus was on Oprah’s experience playing Deborah. One might argue that Oprah’s fame would help generate a greater audience to see the movie, which might bring more awareness to Henrietta and the unethicality of her situation. However, it seems that the vast majority watched the film simply because Oprah was acting in it. A Rotten Tomato film critique best puts “There are odd moments, inexplicable pivots and [the film] fails to do justice to its eponymous hero, but none of that matters when Winfrey is on screen” (Mangan). The overarching message and flaws in the film are simply ignored because of Oprah.
Interviews with the cast about the film were featured on highly viewed shows such as Dr. Oz and CBS news. In these interviews, Oprah mainly discussed her role as Deborah while the rest of the cast took a backseat. The goal was to convince the audience to watch the HBO film. While there may be other objectives, the film’s main goal is to profit: A greater audience means more money in their pockets. What better way to convince the general public to watch the film than to have Oprah tell them? The general audience consensus on the film, according to Rotten Tomato, is that the film tried tackling too many issues just for it all to fall flat. However, the most popular articles and videos generated from the film are centered around Oprah’s skillful acting, which is a stark contrast to the more thought-provoking articles generated in response to the book. In her film critique, King hopes that, at the very least, the film will provoke more people to read the biography. Since the film’s primary objective is to profit, it piggy-backs off of Oprah’s fame and involvement in the film rather than using Henrietta’s story.
These alterations, historical inaccuracies, and Oprah’s involvement retract from the focus on Henrietta due to Wolfe’s motives of profit and entertainment. A biography is typically created with a greater purpose than profit: In Skloot’s case, she spent over a decade working on the biography and was deeply involved with Henrietta’s family. It was clear that she was struggling to make ends meet, but she refused to publish the book before it was complete, despite the potential cash grab. More often than not, however, people want to pay to watch an entertaining film. According to a Writoscope article, oftentimes people utilize films, television, video games, and other sources of entertainment to escape from their daily school life, work, financial struggle, or other real-life issues. Most would find the passive act of watching a movie for quick entertainment favorable, which is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a drama with a happy ending (Sachin). A documentary would not have drawn as massive of an audience, which means it would not have been as profitable or raise as much awareness. Controversial topics are not a safe cash grab either, which is why many of the scenes of Henrietta are limited. According to Rashi Kishore’s Inpeak article, Hollywood is the number one film industry in the world (par. 1). The scenes that are shown are overly glamorized to ignore the racial issues going on at the time. The fabricated conflicts, such as the white-savior trope, give the audience a reason to be on the edge of their seat. In the end, of course this fake conflict is resolved in order to give viewers what they paid for: a happy ending. This is also seen in other successful and highly profitable films, once again Pocohantas is a perfect example. Would parents pay for their child to watch a controversial film that depicts the cruel reality of colonization? What Wolfe fails to realize is that
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is intended for an adult audience, who are generally mature enough to handle real conflicts and controversial situations. He sees fabricated tropes and a happy ending as a sure way to reach the widest audience, rather than taking a risk and following Skloot’s successful rhetorical strategies that created a New York Time’s Best Seller.
As Skloot became intertwined with Henrietta’s family and story, her biography evolved to encompass prominent issues: The bigger picture involving Henrietta now was patient confidentiality, along with the broader issue of ethics in the scientific community. In order to achieve the portrayal of this message to her audience, she includes herself as a background character in the book. However, she does not make herself the central focus or the white savior as the film adaptation shows. Unlike the film, she attempts to maintain a level-head in her argument by emphasizing the contributions that Henrietta Lacks has made to science; meanwhile, the film barely scratches the surface. Skloot incorporates examples outside of HeLa cells to prove her point. For instance, she refers to how the “study of HeLa injections, the Tuskegee study, and the Nazi research” relate to one another (Skloot 168). The Tuskegee study occurred in the United States from 1932 to 1972 in which the Public Health Service conducted a study of untreated Syphilis in 600 black men without their informed consent (CDC “The Tuskegee Timeline”). Unethical Nazi experiments were carried out against the will of many Jewish and minority prisoners during World War II. The use of these comparisons enabled her to inform readers that HeLa cells taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent was one of few traumatic events involving ethics and science at the same time.
Her objective in the creation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is to inform and raise awareness about Henrietta and ethics in science, rather than profit. Although Rebecca Skloot’s biography did not result in any policy changes regarding the unethicality surrounding Henrietta’s situation—in particular patient consent—it has sparked international evaluation of the role of ethics in science. In the scholarly article “Bioethics in Popular Science: Evaluating the Media Impact of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on the Biobank Debate,” the authors Declan Fahy and Matthew Nisbet address the impacts on media and pop-culture as a direct result of Skloot’s biography success. The authors analyze the ethic-related themes in the book and from Skloot herself in interviews and profiles. They systematically analyzed over a hundred news organizations and publications that were in English. The articles were scanned for ethical themes such as consent, welfare of the vulnerable, compensation, accountability/oversight, privacy, and advocacy. Fahy and Nisbet concluded that discussion of cell ownership, balance between patenting and access to research, and accountability or oversight for current policies were not frequently discussed in book reviews. Rather, opinion articles related to ethical themes discussed these important topics and utilized Skloot’s book as an opportunity to bring awareness to an audience beyond those in the scientific or medical field. The authors argue that these discussions have contributed to public education regarding ethical issues related to biobanking (conservation of organic tissue for research purposes) and consent. The conclusion drawn by Fahy and Nisbet is that the book’s popularity demonstrates the public’s interest in ethics and that the biography should serve as a prompt for community discussion over a variety of ethical themes and rhetorics in science.
While Henrietta’s cells became famous for their mind-blowing accomplishments, she was left unknown to the public until Skloot’s biography. Not only did Skloot shine a light on Henrietta’s life and tragic story, but she evoked a greater discussion concerning patient consent. While it is a reasonable assumption that the creation of a film adaptation—even if poorly executed—would better raise awareness than nothing at all, this is incorrect. The book was successful on its own in bringing awareness to Henrietta and the broader issue of patient consent. If the film was done correctly, it should only generate more discussion regarding the same issue and, possibly, policy changes. However, since the film failed to utilize its rhetorical strategies by focusing on Skloot’s character rather than Henrietta’s, the original message was buried under the dramatization.
It is essential to analyze why the film adaptation failed where the biography succeeded for future works attempting to bring awareness to issues not only relating to ethics in science but any historically significant event. As creators see the potential to raise awareness about issues or historical events through film, Hidden Figures, First Man, and many other films have been recently released with great popularity. With a rise in historical movie releases, especially those regarding science issues, it is crucial for audiences to be skeptical at the accuracy in order to prevent the spread of false information. Like the HBO adaptation of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, when source material is retold across different mediums—especially film—it is often reduced and oversimplified in an attempt to appeal to mass audiences. As works achieve their goal in bringing awareness, public consciousness of the issue will lead to more discussion, which then provokes action.
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Sachin. “Reading vs Watching Videos – Which One Works Better?” Writoscope, 5 Apr. 2019, https://www.writoscope.com/reading/reading-vs-watching-videos-which-one-works-better/.
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Erica Babb is a junior at IUPUI with a major in media arts and a minor in biology. Pre-COVID, she attended the University of San Francisco where she was inspired to write this piece with the aid of Professor Leigh Meredith. Although Erica is specializing in web development, she is passionate about the rhetoric and influence of media, film, and published texts. As graduation and her career approaches, she hopes to continue being aware and critical of the content she produces and consumes. Outside of school, Erica pursues lofty fitness goals––marathons and a bodybuilding competition––along with hobbies such as cooking, thrifting, and video gaming.