Oprah Winfrey says she lives without feeling rage, which is a nice way to go through your days but potentially limiting when you’re playing the pivotal character in a film about an emotionally scarred woman who is all but consumed by it.
Needing to get in touch with some visceral fury, Winfrey reached out to one of the students she calls “my girls” – a young woman from the South African leadership academy she famously endowed – and asked her to recount her experiences with an aunt who had beaten her. Winfrey had been beaten as a child, too, but time and other sources of healing blunted the pain to the point where, as she puts it, there was no “charge” for her left.
“I asked her to tell me the story, because I didn’t have enough charge from my own beatings,” she explains. “I have to work really, really hard to pull up anger and rage. But hearing someone else talk about their beatings, I could have great empathy, great compassion, great sorrow and sadness.”
And an explosive sense of indignation, a summoning she found immensely helpful in conjuring a daughter struggling to come to grips with the fate of her long-dead mother in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a movie directed and largely written by George C. Wolfe and based on the best-selling 2010 nonfiction book of that title by Rebecca Skloot. It premieres on HBO on April 22 at 8 p.m.
It’s easy to see what the attraction was for the 63-year-old Winfrey, in one of her infrequent acting forays. Her last movie role was in 2014’s “Selma,” and she appeared in the 2016 drama series “Greenleaf” on her TV network, OWN. Via HBO, she took the project to Wolfe, a theatre veteran, after their plans to work on a Broadway show together failed to crystallise. The film, which features Rose Byrne as Skloot and a supporting cast that includes Renee Elise Goldsberry, Reg Cathey, Courtney Vance and Leslie Uggams, tracks a reporter’s investigation into the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died in obscurity in Baltimore in 1951 but who nevertheless became world-renowned – on a cellular level.
Scientists found that the cells cultured from her tumour samples didn’t readily die off, which meant they could reproduce again and again. As a result, these valuable cell lines, which have come to be known to research labs and biotechnology companies worldwide by Henrietta’s abbreviated name, HeLa, have been instrumental in dozens of medical breakthroughs for a number of diseases, including cancer and AIDS, and are still in use to this day.
“I see all of my work as a kind of offering,” Winfrey says in a telephone interview from her estate in Santa Barbara, California. “It comes from a genuine spirit of enthusiasm. I felt a genuine desire to share this story, because this is a name that people should know.”
The participation of Winfrey significantly upgrades the movie’s curiosity value. “It’s an astonishing performance,” Wolfe says. “There’s a power to her and a ferocity to her.” Winfrey takes a deep dive into rage as a consequence of portraying Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, sometimes called Dale, a woman so disordered by grief and grievance she seems to live in a limbo of distress: Although her mother’s cells have enduring purpose, Deborah can’t find any deep meaning for her own life. (Goldsberry, a Tony winner for her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” plays Henrietta in flashback sequences.)
Byrne’s Skloot, sensing the inequity of a medical establishment profiting from Henrietta’s unwitting bequest but offering no compensation to her struggling descendants, persuades the erratic Deborah to team up with her to excavate material for the book. (The fight over Henrietta’s legacy has created bitter rifts among her survivors, although people involved in making the movie say the feud had no effect on it.)
So it’s actually the stories of two women, separated by death. By way of Deborah, the movie is about a citizen seeking redress from powerful institutions, a theme that strikes a particular nerve at this moment of deep mistrust of American government, media and other symbols of authority. The medical world, represented here by Baltimore’s august Johns Hopkins University, where Henrietta was treated and her tumor was removed, is not excused from criticism, although the movie doesn’t look for villains. Through Henrietta, the film enlarges on a positive notion, of one person contributing to the betterment of humankind in a way that transcends one’s modest circumstances, or even the knowledge the benefits have occurred.
“It is a story of economic injustice,” Wolfe insists, as he sits in the offices of a Manhattan media studio where “Henrietta Lacks’’ was edited. “But the movie is also about taking this person from abstraction and claiming this person as a tangible human being. One of the things that I really love is that in 1951, on paper, one of the least powerful people you could be is a moderate-income black woman. And yet HeLa was so powerful.”