The film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premiering on HBO at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, Apr. 22, offers a poignant portrayal of the fallout to the family of the premature death of Henrietta Lacks and the suffering the entire family endured in learning that her cells were used without her permission. But what was most infuriating were some of the last few words you see on screen. “The Lacks family never received compensation for the use of her cells.”
What? To this day?
Here’s the backstory. Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 31 in 1951. In the operating room surgeons harvested cells from her tumor that would prove to be immortal and would change the face of medicine forever, including, but not limited to: a polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, to treating blindness and formulating the AIDS cocktail. Because of her cells the biomedical industry was born. It’s a throwback to enslaved women who were experimented on without anesthesia to perfect C-sections and fistula.
Or the Tuskegee experiments where scientists infected black men with syphilis in order to understand the long-term effects of the disease.
Oprah Winfrey acts brilliantly and at times hilariously as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. The supporting actors are vivid and enjoyably idiosyncratic, including favorites like Rocky Carroll, Leslie Uggams and Reg E. Cathy and newcomers like Kyanna Simone Simpson.
The dialogue between the family members is believable and enjoyable. But there are cringe-worthy moments of stereotypes and and formulaic tropes of white saviors while the movie is billed as a story of unlikely friendships. The later portions of the movie wane because the underlying story hints that the family members were given to histrionics and the reporter, played to the hilt by actress Rose Byrne, had to muddle through their antics in order to convince them and then help them tell this story.
The irony is that the family members, with their sharp wit, warmth and lively dialogue shine through as the stars despite their suffering. And the story of Henrietta Lacks is told beautifully through flashbacks by Renée Elise Goldsberry.
We got to speak to relative newcomer, actress Kyanna Simone Simpson, who played the young Deborah Lacks.
Okayplayer: For people who may not know tell us a little bit about Henrietta Lacks…
Kyanna Simone Simpson: She was an African American woman who had cervical cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins took pieces from her cancerous tumors and they used her cells and those cells ended up becoming the first immortal human cell life. This was all done without her knowledge and her family didn’t know until decades later. When her family does find out they want to know more and the family follows her youngest daughter Deborah Lacks who I play the younger version of. Deborah is really interested in knowing about her mom, how was she as a person.
OKP: What did her cells do for the medical field, what were they able to innovate because of her cells?
KSS: These cells are still replicating today and they have been used to help make the polio vaccine, the AIDS cocktail. There’s not one person in the world who hasn’t been affected by these HeLa cells (HeLa is a shortening of Henrietta Lacks’ name).
OKP: How did you land the role?
KSS: My manager called me while I was off for the summer from classes. He said, “Kee Kee, I have the perfect job for you. You’ll be playing the younger version of Oprah Winfrey’s character.” I go silent.
People have always said that I looked and acted like Oprah Winfrey my entire life. In middle school and high school it was my nickname on the cheerleading team. My cheerleading jacket actually says Oprah on it. Every time somebody would say that I would be like really? I think so too and I would say one day I’m going to play her in a movie.
Ms. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel Jackson’s wife, is a mentor of mine. She’s an amazing actress. She played my mother on an HBO show called Show Me a Hero a couple of years ago. On set she said you look like my friend Oprah. I asked her if there was any way she could help me snag the audition and she reached out to the director George C. Wolfe and I got the audition. Three weeks later I got a call. My manager said, “Hey Deborah.” I just started crying because this story, especially after reading the book, it affected me so much. Then to top it off, I was going to be playing the younger version of my biggest inspiration.
OKP: When did you meet Oprah and what was your first impression?
KSS: I was speaking to Ms. Adriane, she plays Barbara in the film, and she goes, “Did you meet Oprah who you are playing the younger version of? And I turn around and there’s Ms. Winfrey. I felt so welcomed, because she was like, “You’re playing the younger me.” She gave me a big hug. I felt an immediate connection with her.
She spoke about you on The Rachel Ray Show that you would be the person to play her in a movie. So there’s mutual affection? I’d like to think that. I was watching the video and my face just dropped because this is literally the words that I have been saying my entire life. I always said I would play Oprah in a movie. And now to hear her say that she would also like that on national television.
OKP: You’re a full-time college student, how did you end up doing acting and how do you juggle both?
KSS: A lot of praying. I try my hardest to complete my work the second I get it, in case I have to leave campus my work is already turned in. I only take Tuesday/Thursday classes. I want to finish with a degree in my hand. I’m majoring in entertainment and media. I’m in the process of applying to the school of journalism.
OKP: What was a typical day on set like?
KSS: We filmed a lot in Atlanta. It was such a great surprise every time I would walk into the trailer and Ms. Winfrey was sitting there. I loved listening to her talk about different experiences she’s had in her life. I met so many great people like Rose Byrne and Renée Goldsberry.
OKP: Tell me about your first audition for Tony Vaughn?
KSS: I was going to Krogers. I noticed him pushing a cart. I said I have to take this chance because this is what I’m dreaming for and this opportunity has been presented to me. I walk up to him and say, “Excuse me, sir. Are you famous or something?” I was so afraid about how he would respond. But he looks back and says what do you think I’m famous for? The conversation continued and walked with him to his car telling him what I wanted to do with my life. In the parking lot I said, “I can do my monologue for you.” He was amused at this 13-year-old girl. He said, “You know what, I’m going to help you out with your career.” He took me under his wing.
OKP: What kinds of things did Oprah tell you?
KSS: When I talked to her about how I was going to play her in a movie, she said, you manifested that just like I manifested my career. Like I am believing in myself and everything came about, just like she believed in herself and everything came about. I wasn’t calling it manifestation at first, but now I see it. All of this will happen and now it’s here.
OKP: What are you currently working on? I know there’s a project with Matthew McConaughey?
KSS: I’m in Cleveland filming a movie called White Boy Rick and it’s starring Matthew McConaughey. I’m honored to be working with him and I use any chance I get to get a few acting tips from him. He’s a really cool guy.
OKP: What about being on Being Mary Jane?
KSS: That was so much fun. I was actually a senior in high school getting ready for graduation and I find out I got the part for this show that I watch. And it’s Gabrielle Union who I look up to. I was actually directed by Regina King. Her direction was so good and it made me immerse myself in the character. It was so funny all of your friends watch it and all of their parents watch it too. It was a blast.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks airs on HBO tonight, Apr. 22, at 8:00 p.m. EST.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.