The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

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Deadpool


Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic (voice), Michael Benyaer, Karan Soni, Leslie Uggams, Rob Hayter, Greg LaSalle, Hugh Scott, Donna Yamamoto, Kyle Cassie, Taylor Hickson, Randal Reeder, Jed Rees, Style Dayne, Aatash Amir, Chad Riley, Emily Haine. Directed by Tim Miller

We’re all used to the ponderous superhero movies with tons of special effects as we see how the hero went from a young nobody to being a powerful and charismatic hero, saving the world (or at least New York) from threats that even Schwarzenegger at his best couldn’t overcome.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is an ex Special Forces vet with 41 kills to his credit. These days he makes a living by being a bad guy taking out worse guys, as he puts it. He hangs out in the St. Agnes School, which is really a bar where mercenaries hang out awaiting assignments and the bartender Weasel (Miller) is Wilson’s best friend.

Then Wilson meets Vanessa (Baccarin), a cocktail waitress and hooker who agrees to go out on a date with him and eventually, the two become a couple. But when things are going good, fate has a way of laying the smack down on us. Wilson is diagnosed with terminal cancer. While drinking away his troubles, he is met in the bar by a recruiter (Rees) for an experimental medical program that can cure Wade’s cancer but also give him superpowers. With nothing to lose, he leaves Vanessa’s bed in the middle of the night and heads for the clinic (which is more like a warehouse) overseen by psychotic scientist/super villain Ajax (Skrein) who hates his given name of Francis. The process which it takes to cure Wade is a brutal one and an excruciating one.

When he escapes the compound after Ajax and his super-strong minion Angel Dust (Carano) – whom Wilson describes as a less angry Rosie O’Donnell – torture him with a modified hyperbaric chamber, Wade is disfigured and pissed off. Donning a costume with a mask so nobody can see his face, he adopts the name Deadpool after a pastime at the bar, and goes on the hunt for his nemesis.

In the meantime, the X-Men in the form of Colossus (Kapicic/LaSalle) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Hildebrand) are trying to recruit Deadpool for their team although ‘pool is far too focused on getting revenge to bother with saving the world. Not that he’s against saving the world, as long as he gets the girl, puts the bad guys into the ground and has plenty of chimichangas afterwards.

Reynolds has been trying to get this made for six years, ever since the unsatisfying appearance of the Merc with a Mouth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fox has been resistant to the idea of doing an R-rated superhero movie and for once, the filmmakers got their way and I’m sure the executives at Fox are happy that they did. The movie has been a phenomenal success; already some pundits are talking that it will force the industry to rethink the entire release concept of tentpole blockbusters.

I don’t know if this will eventually be that kind of game-changer but it is excessively entertaining. As has been noted basically everywhere, the tone is irreverent (the opening credits proclaim the movie was directed by “An Overpaid Tool” and has similar credits for most of the cartoonish opening) and the main character often addresses the audience directly, or makes references to the fact that he’s in the movie as when he tells Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus that they are the only two X-Men he ever sees despite living in a huge mansion: “I guess the producers couldn’t afford any more X-Men” he says snidely.

Reynolds was born to play this role. He has the right amount of attitude and the right amount of physicality and somewhat importantly, the right amount of looks. He’s also willing to take a bit of a right cross to the career jaw and make fun of his own image even as his movie is lampooning the genre and Marvel in one fell swoop. Reynolds is engaging and even though his character is violent, annoying and a little bit psychotic, he ends up carrying the audience’s interest throughout.

The rest of the cast is for the most part pretty much unknown although Baccarin, best known for her stint in Firefly, makes for a fine love interest, Carano (a former MMA fighter) a mostly line-less henchwoman and Skrein a suave villain who gets annoyed whenever his real name is used. While Skrein isn’t the most charismatic man to hit Hollywood ever, he nonetheless fulfills the role of an urbane British villain nicely.

I think overall the movie captures the spirit of the comic book pretty well, which is good news for fans. If there are any sticking points it’s that the movie slows down a little near the end when it should be building momentum, and the excessive gore and profanity may be a little much for those sensitive for such things. And parents, please do NOT bring your kids to this. Unless you feel comfortable dropping the F-bomb in front of them regularly and exposing them to scenes of heads being sliced off of their necks, this isn’t meant for kids. I don’t know how many people have to say this however many different ways – and I still see idiot parents bringing their six and seven year old kids to the movie. Get a flippin’ babysitter if you want to see it that badly.

In any case, this is the movie we asked for, it’s the movie we deserve. It’s fun and while I get the sense that Fox kind of hedged their bets with the budget, it’s clear that there will be lots more Deadpool goodness in our futures. And that suits me just fine.

REASONS TO GO: A fun romp throughout. Stays true to the spirit of the comic book.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore and profanity may upset the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygawd! Do not take your children to this movie. If they’re under ten chances are it will be too much for them. There’s a TON of f-bombs, gratuitous violence (always the best kind), and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first R-rated film to open with more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Kung Fu Panda 3