‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ and Black girls destroying the world to save themselves

*This post contains spoilers of “The Girl With All The Gifts”, “The Birth of a Nation”, and “Get Out”*

As someone who has studied and worked in film and television for most of my professional life, I have resigned myself to a set of facts: no film made for mass audiences is truly (or at least fully) an endorsement of Black liberation, and the ending to any film that claims to be such an endorsement will best reveal this truth.

Sofia Coppola erased Black women from ‘The Beguiled’ because white women always have to be victims

By Sherronda Brown

*This essay includes spoilers and discussion of sexual violence.

At some point in the midst of filming The Beguiled on the same plantation where Beyoncé’s Lemonade was filmed, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning attempted to pay homage to the singer through a gesture they no doubt assumed would garner celebration and envy from onlookers rather than ire.

Henrietta Lacks

Oprah Winfrey brings power and emotion to ‘The Immortal Henrietta Lacks’

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. 

REVIEW: ‘Hidden Figures’ Amplifies Black Female Brilliance and Community

By: Imani J. Jackson

When a movie theatre packed with people of varied races, ethnicities, ages and genders erupts into simultaneous applause and cheers during a film’s closing credits, it’s safe to say the story resonated. That human happiness is exactly what manifested on Saturday when my mother, a grandmotherly elder, my younger sister and I attended a Hidden Figures showing.

Cinematically, Hidden Figures demonstrates creative power and how to sensitively wield it. Theodore Melfi directed the film and co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, which is based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

‘Concussion’ Tells the Truth about NFL Medical Neglect

by Lamont Lilly

 

Through a long history of medical examinations and scientific data, the film Concussion directly links repeated violent brain trauma of NFL worker-athletes to dementia, depression, memory loss, mental illness and even suicide.  The truth is all laid out here.  Yes!  It’s an ugly reality, and a bit uncomfortable for most football fans, but truth is, the National Football League (NFL) is a billion dollar industry that doesn’t a give a damn about its player-employees.