In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner‘s Salena Zito, Donald Trump – the current President of the United States – asked, “What caused the Civil War?” This led many in the news media to highlight the sitting president’s apparent lack of knowledge about the historical context surrounding this country’s most deadly war. While it might be the most convenient answer that Trump just “doesn’t know” anything about this country’s history, I have reason to believe this whole farce of a president and the antics he continues to perpetuate run much deeper than simply not knowing any better.
By Imani J. Jackson
If nothing else, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a cautionary tale conveyed cinematically.
The HBO film, which premiered Saturday, April 22nd, and is based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book of the same name, presented an incrementally improving story about Lacks, an African American woman whose cells changed history.
George C. Wolfe directed the film, which presented Lacks’ life primarily through her daughter Deborah, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey and partially through Skloot, portrayed by Rose Byrne. The Immortal Life demonstrated personal power along with a story about medical misrepresentation, female friendship and race.
Initially, I was unsure whether this film would live up to expectation. Would the star-studded team project an intricate and intimate story of a Black woman whose cells innovated medical science — including in vitro fertilization, the AIDS cocktail, the impacts of radiation and toxic substances and more? Would they render Lacks human, even though her cells continuously multiply, as if a higher power placed limitless potential in her?
At first blush, the characters seemed like stereotypes on steroids. But, as time continued, the utility of the stereotypes came to the forefront. Viewers saw cackling medical experts (read: mad scientists). Viewers saw Skloot as a harried white female reporter who was sometimes savior and sometimes sisterly. Viewers saw a religious, respectable, angry, close-knit and skeptical Black family with every reason to have each of these characteristics and then some. As the story unfolded, I was reminded that stereotypes do not fit everyone. However, they certainly fit some.
The medical experts seemed to compromise Lacks’ humanity through taking her cancerous cells without her or her family’s permission. They did not offer or award financial compensation for the human matter from which many of them profited. Instead, their actions offered a commentary on Columbusing and its scope.
More than just the feigned discovery of people or places that already have histories, Johns Hopkins Hospital staff extended their exploration into biomedical human material. These medical professionals’ cell harvesting can be likened to “ghost values”, when white settlers affixed prices to enslaved African people’s bodies after the Africans died.
When Johns Hopkins staffers said things like, “Would you patent the Sun?” in relation to stealthily stealing from Lacks, white medical professionals’ privilege and immoral practices were re-emphasized. And yet, these actions simultaneously reflected the experts’ own inhumanity.
The Immortal Life showed medical communities’ poisonous histories of negligence and malfeasance in vulnerable communities. The film referenced the American government’s unethical experiment on another group of Black people in the South, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” In The Immortal Life, the doctors and hospital employees were portrayed in ugly ways because their actions were ugly.
Conversely, Oprah Winfrey’s performance was beautiful. She brought depth, vitality and community wisdom to Deborah, Lacks’s daughter. Winfrey conveyed inter-racial tensions, that smart people are not always formally educated, and a spiritual connection with her deceased mother and sister.
By having the world’s most respected journalist amplify a Black woman whose cells propelled science into uncharted terrain, Winfrey reminded viewers and creators to dig deeper for stories. Further, unlike those who profited from the Lacks family without their blessing, Deborah actually wanted Oprah to portray her, since Oprah could not play Henrietta. (Watch around the 6:40 minute mark).
Thematically the film portrayed female friendship. Viewers spent substantial time with Deborah and Rebecca. So much emphasis was placed here that a legitimate concern arose: whether Skloot is centered, instead of Lacks in Lacks’ story.
Skloot showed curiosity and journalistic diligence. She was also an overly eager to record reporter. Her character was crafted toward likability in that she was not moneyed. Skloot did not seem to have much beyond the ordinary capital of whiteness. The reporter’s bill-juggling, document diving and late nights positioned her as a good white person, which contrasted with the others whose careers sketchily jumped off from HeLa cells.
I understand frustration with Deborah and Rebecca’s relationship, but also understand white viewers want to see white characters deploy their whiteness and work ethics to help people of color. To that end, the relationship seemed well intentioned albeit obligatory.
One of the more relatable race dynamics played out when Skloot was irritatingly casual with the Black family she grew to know and researched alongside. But that lack of formality is truthful. Rebecca often called Black people old enough to be her parents by their first names, even when they called her “Ms. Rebecca.” For all her friendship and persistence, she still reflected privilege.
Renée Elise Goldsberry portrayed Henrietta Lacks as a stunning, family-oriented and vibrant woman. I loved that Henrietta practiced self-care through beauty routines and displayed southern hospitality to people in her home. Henrietta was shown to viewers through flashbacks as an everyday Black beauty who knew her body and her family and lived with grace.
In the end, this story was necessary. However, the presentation was not faultless. The relationship between Deborah and Rebecca could have been deeper. The remaining Lacks family members could have seemed less knee-jerk. While I would award the film generally three stars out of five, Winfrey and Goldsberry’s performances deserve five stars out of five.
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.
Having to write this at all is frustrating to say the least. But, heterosexual sex is not the only kind of sex. Not only that, it isn’t a tool that should be leveraged to secure anyone’s civil rights. And, even though actress, singer, producer, and Black girl from the future Janelle Monáe recently suggested otherwise in her 2017 Fresh Faces interview with Marie Claire, “respecting the vagina” is not synonymous with respecting women or our rights.
What do you get when you mix a thin, pretty, young, celebrity model (from the Kardashian brood no less) with a corporatized imaginary protest? If you guessed trash, congratulations. That’s what Pepsi gave us. You also get a glimpse of the image many white people have in their minds of corporations, consumers, and social issues. And, it’s a major problem.
News stories about GOP women feeling “betrayed” by the Republican Party have been breaking since late 2016. Sometimes the breakups come with drama and fanfare. At other times, GOP women, like Hawaiian Rep. Beth Fukumoto, choose clear and measurable actions that inevitably lead them to seek political asylum with the Democratic Party. But, what do these recent shifts say about the Republican Party, millennials, and women?
This article was originally posted at Water Cooler Convos and has been reposted with permission.
One of the most irritating byproducts of this new era of being “woke” is the increased numbers of people who read one Martin Luther King, Jr speech or saw one thing Angela Davis said that one time or found an Audre Lorde quote on the Internet and now they have discovered Black liberation theory, Black Feminism, and Black queer praxis. While it is admirable that more people are interested in assessing their roles in anti-Black racism and queerantagonistic systems of control, it can be frustrating when these individuals prop themselves up as exemplars of social justice without the foreknowledge of those efforts that preceded them.
Not everyone has seen the new James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) yet. So, Mic has created a new video comprised of stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Janelle Monae, Lupita Nyong’o, Common, Chris Rock, Yara Shahidi and so many others who want you to “read James Baldwin” and know they iconic thinker whose work lies at the foundation of much of the movement building work that is happening today.
It has only been 9 days since President Obama left office and a new administration took over in his place. Since then, Trump has signed a number of executive orders including but not limited to: an order starting the process to create a wall on the US-Mexico border, an order seeking the “prompt repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” and, probably the most egregious, an order banning people from 7-countries and Syrian refugees from entering the United States.
While this has been disheartening and anxiety-inducing, this is not the time for inaction. It is in times like these that we must mobilize in resistance against the institutions and actors who seek to oppress the most marginalized among us and deny basic civil rights to those in need.
Here are five ways you can do something right now to fight back against the tyrannical policies coming from the White House:
In what has been the most unconventional and unreal nine days of a new presidency, news broke this weekend that, in addition to his other dictator-like orders, Trump had signed a 7-nation ban and refugee suspension executive order that targets people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
The ban also denies admission into the United States of Syrian refugees and limits the Visa renewal process for at least 38 countries, including some allies.
“Why don’t you hand in papers in Ebonics since that is how you talk?”
I remember someone asking me this in my early days of grad school. I then explained that, as a student, it was my job to perform particular scholastic duties – including showing a mastery of the traditional APA, MLA, and Chicago Turabian styles of writing.
However, I told him that I use my native tongue – manifested from my years in Oakland, Calif, raised on the music of E-40, Keak Da Sneak and Tony! Toni! Toné!, and on the slang stylings of radio DJs like KMEL’s Chuy Gomez and Sway – in the classroom when I speak because I have no problem being who I am in that space.
But his question made me think about the ways that our use of regional tongues of Black Vernacular English (sometimes referred to as African-American Vernacular English, AAVE, or BVE) is often judged unnecessarily. Not only that, our decisions to use them in particular settings rather than others is often questioned as inauthenticity.