As a talk show host and executive, Oprah Winfrey has built an empire worth billions, changed lives, made (and occasionally broken) careers, produced award-winning movies and TV shows, and so much more. It’s a remarkable life she has lived, and is still living.
Oprah’s career of being Oprah is so huge and pervasive that it’s easy to forget that’s not how she was first introduced to a national audience. The Oprah Winfrey Show didn’t move from local TV to nationwide syndication until the fall of 1986, nearly a year after the release of The Color Purple, where Winfrey’s performance as the broken, mistreated Sofia earned her an Academy Award nomination. She would act periodically for the next dozen years or so, but between 1998’s Beloved and 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, she mainly did voice work or played herself (like her memorable 30 Rock cameo where Liz Lemon was “snitting next to Borpo”).
You can hardly blame Oprah for focusing on the building and maintaining of her kingdom rather than dabbling in this side career, but the thing is, Oprah Winfrey is a great actress — every bit as raw and vulnerable and charismatic as she is in her public persona, but always tuned to whatever role she’s deigned to play — and it feels like an unexpected treat whenever she decides to remind people of this fact.
The Butler seems to have rekindled Winfrey’s passion for acting, as she’s taken on far more roles over the last few years than at any other point in her career. (It helps that she no longer has a daily talk show to consume so much of her time.) Often, it’s to support a project she’s producing, like Selma or her OWN drama Greenleaf, but at others, it seems to be just because she enjoyed working with a particular director like Daniels or Ava DuVernay.
The HBO movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which debuts Saturday at 8, is a Harpo Films production, but it’s also a tremendous role for Winfrey, even if the film itself is disappointing.
Adapted by writer/director George C. Wolfe from the non-fiction book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot, Henrietta Lacks is nominally the story of its title character, who died in 1951 but lives on due to cell samples taken without her permission. These samples have kept reproducing over the decades and become an enormous part of biomedical research — Jonas Salk used Lacks’ cells to make his polio vaccine, for instance — even as Lacks’ children never saw a dime from any of it. But it’s really the story of Skloot herself, played by Rose Byrne, and the friendship she develops with Henrietta’s youngest surviving daughter Deborah (Winfrey) as she researches Lacks’ life for the book.
Wolfe uses Byrne’s Skloot as a way to deal with the sprawling and complicated nature of the story, which involves both Henrietta’s life and death and descendants, but also the impact her cells — known as the HeLa line — had on the world at large. But she’s so prominent that at times (through no fault of Byrne, who has a nice rapport with Winfrey) Henrietta Lacks begins to feel like another film about what a white person feels about a historically important black person’s life. Played by Hamilton alum Renee Elise Goldsberry, Henrietta herself appears only occasionally in brief, impressionistic flashbacks as other people talk about her with Rebecca and Deborah. It’s allegedly her story — or, at least, the story of her children trying to learn more about her long after she’s gone — and she’s barely in it.