The Immortal Lessons of Henrietta Lacks

Whilst I was watching a particularly harrowing sequence in the new HBO-produced movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book), I was reminded of a bit that Chris Rock used to include in his stand-up about race. He would argue that the most ‘racist’ black people he knew were older black people, telling his white audience members something like, “Don’t be fooled by how nice the black janitor in your building is: Willie hates your ass”. It’s funnier in his telling of it, but it came to mind as I was watching the actors who play Henrietta Lacks’s immediate family, all older African-Americans, navigate the issue of whether or not they can trust the very white reporter, Rebecca Skloot, when she first comes knocking on their doors.  It’s a heartbreaking set of sequences because you know that they, of course, did let her in, and she wrote their story. But you also know that allowing her in did not do much to change their dismal material circumstances. And that even though their matriarch’s immortal cells are the foundation for modern biomedicine, they lead lives full of hardships and have limited access to the advances that Lacks’s cells facilitated.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating and baffling one. The dumbed down, not-too-jargony version as I understand it is this: in 1950s Baltimore, Lacks was diagnosed with and received treatment for cervical cancer. During treatment, her cancer cells were taken and cultured, as was standard practice. This was done without her knowledge or consent, which was also standard practice. The cells were given the moniker HeLa, after Lacks. Unlike other human cells, HeLa cells could survive outside the human body. And not only could they survive, but they could thrive. They grew, as Dr George Gey, the doctor whose lab worked with the original cultures, says, “like crabgrass”. And so they spread, in labs across the world, helping facilitate the development of the polio vaccine, antiretroviral therapy for HIV, cancer treatments and countless other biomedical innovations. Lacks family was never told all this, and what little they were told was not explained clearly or respectfully. Until Rebecca Skloot came knocking.

Skloot’s book (which, full disclosure, I am still working my way through) was a groundbreaking success. It laid bare all the ugly details of what Lacks went through, and how her family have felt the residual trauma of her illness and death, and the denial of her dignity in both.

The movie based on the book stars Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s younger daughter, Deborah (Dale) Lacks. Of all of Lacks’s surviving family members, Dale carries much of the pain of her mother’s story. As she guides Skloot through the process of digging up her family’s pain, she unravels, hit once again by the full force of all of that has been taken from her mother, her family and herself. Winfrey as Dale captures so perfectly and heartbreakingly the nuance of this pain. Losing your mother at such a young age, discovering that not only is she lost to you, but a key contribution she has made to the human race has also been taken from you, wilfully. And then to have scientists, reporters, lawyers and chancers of every variety descend upon you as you’re trying to make sense of it all.  It’s far too much, and Winfrey expresses that in Dale’s every mood shift and painful step.

The real genius of the movie is the way in which Winfrey and Rose Byrne (who portrays Skloot) address, through their performances, the white elephant of Skloot’s inescapable whiteness, and the ethics of yet another black story in the hands of yet another white person. This is not The Help, in which the black characters were, for the most part, helpless victims. In The Immortal Life, Dale and her family hold tight to what little agency they have left. Skloot and her questions are given a frosty reception, with family members, at one point, telling her, “We don’t tell stories on the dead”. When they finally do share stories of Henrietta, it is on their own terms and in their own language (which Skloot takes great pains to record accurately and then reproduce in her book). Dale, in particular, leads Skloot’s search for answers, figuratively and literally: there are various scenes of Skloot driving behind Dale’s car, sometimes struggling to keep pace.

There’s also a particularly upsetting scene after Skloot and Dale visit the institution in which Dale’s older sister, Elsie, died. Her records are upsetting, and feature a photograph of Elsie that speaks to how badly she was treated. Afterwards, Dale is upset, and is driving through the roads haphazardly, changing lanes without indicating, cutting off other vehicles. She is, evidently, manic, driven into this state by the truth of how her sister lived and died. And as she is driven to the edge of her sanity by this truth, she literally drives Skloot there too. Skloot is not allowed the luxury of a reporter’s remove from this story, and its mania and madness. She is pulled into it, made a part of it, on Dale’s terms. It is a powerful scene.

So, too is the scene almost immediately after that. Skloot and Dale are back at the motel in which they’re staying. They go through Elsie’s medical records, with Skloot reading aloud the details of what likely happened to Elsie. Diagnosed with encephalopathy, she likely had holes drilled into her skull, and air pumped through the holes. As anyone placed in the position of hearing this distressing fact of how your loved one, your sister, was treated, Dale loses it. She takes it out on Skloot, bringing up old suspicions and questioning who is paying Skloot (no-one was) and who she is working for (herself). Skloot cracks, telling Dale that if she can’t trust her after all this time then she can “go fuck [her]self”. Instead of shrinking, as she has done before, and playing the part of the white victim, Skloot brings the full force of her own personal frustrations to bear. This might be read as selfish: surely, Dale has every right to be upset and Skloot should tolerate her mood swings. But if she did that, hid her emotions behind a vail of white understanding and implied emotional superiority, it would ring false. Her outburst places her firmly in the story, where, over an awkward breakfast the next morning, Dale insists she must stay. Dale insists that she put their fight in the book (which is how it ended up in the movie, I imagine). This is not just a white retelling of a black story. It becomes a story Skloot is very much a part of. “We a mess, girl”, Dale says, and aren’t we just. Black folk and white folk and the things we’ve done and continue to do to one another. No-one is clean, no-one gets to be the objective, impartial narrator. We a mess, and so is our storytelling.

Lacks herself is also in the story as an actor, and not as a defenceless victim from whom much was taken. Throughout the story, the Lacks family insists on Henrietta’s agency in everything that’s happened with her cells. She was not a passive victim of this medical thievery. She lives on in those cells, saving countless lives. Skloot says, rightly, “There’s not a person alive who hasn’t benefitted from [her] cells”. Imagine that. How’s that for #blackgirlmagic? For Dale and her family, this understanding takes on a kind of spiritual mythology. Whenever something to do with the cells or the reporting on the cells happen, it’s all down to Henrietta. For example, an editor who was dismissive of the family’s role in the story and instructed Skloot to take it out, is summarily injured in a treadmill accident and loses all memory of his meetings with Skloot. In the book, Skloot describes how Dale explained this as well as her marriage and subsequent divorce as Henrietta’s doing. Her cells continue to live, and in some way, her will and her energy does to, playing an active role in her continued biological life. This assertion of Lacks’s agency, through mystical, spiritual coincidences (and there are few genuinely spooky ones included in the sections of the book that I’ve read) places her at the centre of this biological immortality her cells have conferred on her. Hence Skloot’s book and this movie is not about ‘the immortal life of HeLa cells’, but about the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, the life contained within those cells.

The brutal effects of racism through generations is also clearly and accurately portrayed. From the outset, we know there is something amiss with Dale. She swings violently from flurries of activity and a maelstrom of ideas, to deep, paralysing anguish and despair. Her brother, Zakariyya, battles intense and debilitating anger. Neither of the two are ever explicitly labelled with the terms modern psychology might use to understand their dispositions. I found myself immediately seeing in Dale what I understand to be the symptoms of bipolar disorder. And whilst that may be one accurate way of understanding Dale, the movie challenges a simplistic diagnosis that would focus only on Dale’s individual history and symptoms. In fact, her ‘episodes’ are clearly an expression of the bone-deep distress at all her mother endured, and all she has endured since the loss of her mother. So, whilst bipolar disorder might be a clinically accurate explanation of what’s going on with Dale, it is hardly the whole story, and The Immortal Life makes sure that you know that and never lets you rest easy on the laurels of ‘objective’ psychology.

Casting Winfrey was a stroke of genius on a number of levels. Her performance is incredibly affecting and I had to walk away from it a few times to compose myself. She is that good. That Winfrey is best known as the former talk show host who charmed her way into homes across the world, is a bonus. Not only was Oprah everyone’s favorite show, but she was, more specifically, a favorite of white viewers. She was a non-threatening, relatable black woman, everyone’s black best friend or neighbour or co-worker. She spoke like and to white folks in as much as she did black folks. And so casting her as a (rightly) angry and hurt and mentally ill black woman is genius: some white viewers may be more open to this story because Oprah is helping to tell it. But once they’re in, via Oprah, they won’t be able to escape Dale and the discomfort and/or guilt that Dale may bring up for them. In one cringeworthy moment in the film, Skloot confronts a doctor who took blood samples from Dale and her brothers after their mother’s death. He led them to believe they were being tested for cancer, when really he was collecting samples for research. Skloot asks why he didn’t clear up the misunderstanding. It doesn’t matter, he tells her. “These people” would hardly have understood anyway. Skloot is visibly, and somewhat naively, surprised and appalled. Any black person watching this scene will not balk at the use of “these people” to refer to black people. We’ll be appalled, sure, but not surprised. I wonder what it will be like for white audiences watching scenes like this. And what, if any, reflections on their own whiteness might result.

Byrne’s portrayal of Skloot is also noteworthy. Unlike Emma Stone’s performance in The Help, Byrne’s is a quiet, background performance. She seems to understand that this is not her story to tell, and she lets Winfrey do most of the telling. She also plays the role of the bewildered white lady to a tee. She is a stranger in this world, and is most certainly not at the centre of it. The movie’s writers wisely keep the details of Skloot’s private life well out of the way. All we ever learn of her is that she has very little money, and no cell phone. Her whiteness and the privilege that comes with it is specifically highlighted. In one scene, Dale is telling Skloot how all of the people who are more than willing to speak frankly to Skloot, a white reporter, refused steadfastly to speak to Dale, Henrietta’s daughter, about HeLa cells. “So, you just keep on bein’ white”, Dale encourages Skloot, tongue firmly in cheek. In another scene, Skloot and Dale are confronted by an arrogant white junior administrator whilst they are searching for Elsie’s medical records. Dale angrily explains why they’re there and what they want. The administrator looks right past her and addresses Skloot, who hasn’t spoken. “I guess I suddenly became invisible!” Dale exclaims. And she doesn’t back down. She keeps talking and it is her insistence and persistence that lead them to Elsie’s distressing file. Byrne as Skloot is never given the role of ‘white saviour’ and the privilege that she carries in her body, and the racism visited on Dale’s and Henrietta’s bodies are named and called out. It’s discomfiting but it is also such an accurate representation of what black people endure all the time. Until Winfrey spoke that line to the white administrator, I hadn’t even noticed that the administrator wasn’t addressing her character. That’s how conditioned am to that kind of subtle racism.

No amount of sensitive and critical retelling of Henrietta’s story, no foundation, no book, no movie can ever make up for the wrong that was done to Lacks and her family. Nothing will take away the ache of Dale’s grief. But I can certainly say, having watched The Immortal Life, that her grief, and the grief of her family will be heard. In this age in which black lives don’t matter and white ‘allies’ insist on taking on black people’s stories and identities totally, this retelling of this especially painful story is an excellent attempt at a counter-narrative. It’s hard not to imagine Henrietta, whose life continues, watching all this from wherever she sees us, smiling.