Back in April, when The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premiered, I said there was no doubt that Oprah Winfrey would be nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Deborah Lacks, the daughter of the titular woman whose genetics were used without permission to advance both science and medicine. You can imagine my shock when the nominees for the 2017 Emmys were announced and Winfrey’s name was noticeably missing from the list (I’m still holding out hope the Globes will deliver).
While The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks found itself as an Emmy nom among Black Mirror, Dolly Parton’s Christmas Of Many Colors: Circle of Love, Sherlock: The Lying Detective, and Wizard of Lies for Best Television Movie, it’s average company at best. Henrietta Lacks’ biggest competition is hands down fellow HBO creation Wizard of Lies, which enlisted Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfieffer to tell the story of chaos the Madoff family endured after the discovery of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Wizard of Lies also holds three more nominations over Henrietta Lacks, with both De Niro and Pfieffer earning noms.
As a whole, Henrietta Lacks is a pretty good movie but what really sets it apart from the rest is Winfrey’s performance. The daytime TV mogul does not often take on an acting role, and when she does, it’s for sure the film is of significance (think: The Butler, Selma, The Color Purple), and this film was no different. Based on a novel written by Rebecca Skloot, the journalist and scientific writer who helped Deborah find truth and justice for the unauthorized harvesting of her mother’s cells, we follow the unlikely duo through ups and downs that lead them to the truth about not only Deborah’s mother but also the discovery of what happened to her mentally challenged sister who died at a young age in a mental hospital after being neglected, abused and used for cruel experiments. If her track record is any indication, it’s clear that Oprah picks projects that resonate not only with her but with anyone who has a heart. How can you not feel the pain that Deborah feels when she finds out her vulnerable sister was abused and no one came to see about her after her mother died? Or, when she’s reliving the molestation she went through as a young girl — a scene that naturally brings Oprah’s own experience with sexual abuse from a family member to mind — what must that have been like for her to film? It’s those moments of raw and real that make you shake your head in awe at how a once-local TV reporter became an Oscar-nominated actress.
If The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the Emmy for Best Television Movie, I’ll consider that justice for Oprah’s lack of nomination in the Best Actress in a Limited Series category because, after all, she basically carries the entire movie on her shoulders with a little support from the rest of the cast.
Watch The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO on-demand now.