Review: Decoding Annie Parker

I finally saw Decoding Annie Parker and I have to say that my reaction was similar to Bryna’s over at Blogging BRCA. Go read her review here.

I was disappointed in this movie. It focuses mostly on Annie’s life with little attention paid to Mary-Claire King and the science behind the discovery of BRCA1. The film shows Annie learning about genetics, and it would have been easy for viewers to learn about it along with her: all the filmmakers would have to do is show someone explaining it to Annie or have Annie explain it to someone else. We get some of that, but mostly we see Annie bent over big books and constructing genetic models to help herself understand heredity. As viewers we don’t learn much.

There’s also little sense of why the discovery was so scientifically significant. I remember watching the nightly news back in the early 1990s and seeing the excitement around the discovery on television, even though at the time I had absolutely no idea that I was a carrier. It would have been easy to cut in some footage from the time in a montage of sorts, or have Annie watch Tom Brokaw reveal the discovery and explain its importance on the national news.

At the same time that they shortchange viewers on the science behind of BRCA mutations, the filmmakers missed a real opportunity to explore the life of a woman in genetics who triumphs over the misogynist tendencies of the scientific community, something King herself is interested in. King is a truly exceptional woman and groundbreaking scientist not only for her role in the discovery of BRCA1 but also her other work in genetics, yet she’s barely shown despite the fact that the film promos suggest the movie is equally about Parker and King.

Moreover, Annie Parker is a strange figure to focus on in some ways. As played by Samantha Morton, she seems smart, witty, tenacious, and very likable–all good qualities, to be sure. However, in the film, Helen Hunt (playing Mary-Claire King) calls Parker “a remarkable woman.” After watching the movie, it’s not clear to me what makes Parker so special beyond her great personality and unlikely survival after three (!!!) separate cancer diagnoses. Her story is similar to so many BRCA+ women and other cancer families. We see Annie doggedly researching cancer genetics at a time when the medical establishment didn’t recognize it as a viable field of inquiry, but what did her research actually accomplish? Not much.

I’m not saying that the film shouldn’t focus on Annie Parker or that she’s not worthy of our attention. Her story on its own may very well be worth a film. However, this film does a pretty flimsy job of connecting her to the promise of its title–to decode her genes in the discovery of BRCA mutations. In fact, King never decoded Parker’s genome, Parker’s genes were not part of the discovery of BRCA1 at all, and the two never even met; there’s no real tie between them beyond the fact that King located BRCA1 and Parker is a carrier of BRCA1. If you’re not going to focus exclusively on King and want to include a narrative about a woman with a BRCA mutation, then why not use a woman from one of the cancer families that King actually studied?

The filmmakers did invent a scene in which Parker and King meet. In it, Parker rushes in late after King gives a scientific lecture and introduces herself. King brushes her off impatiently and walks away, leaving Parker looking disappointed and awkward. King then returns a moment later and tells Parker that she’s remarkable before walking away quickly again. That’s it.

Quite frankly, King comes off as a bitch in the scene. Here viewers have just watch the funny and tenacious Annie Parker suffer through the deaths of her mother and sister from breast cancer, receive her own diagnoses of breast and then ovarian cancer, endure the truly horrific side effects of chemotherapy, and cast off an immature cheating husband, who then himself develops cancer and dies. And then this fictional King can’t be bothered to even have a polite conversation with her.

This is completely at odds with the reputation of the real Mary-Claire King, who is known for being a friend of the underdog and running a particularly diverse, inclusive lab–a rarity in the sciences, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.  This woman has revolutionized the study of breast and ovarian cancer, and had a palpable effect on the lives of millions of BRCA+ women the world over who now have the chance to avoid the genetic fates suffered by their foremothers. Mary-Claire King is the kind of hero you rarely see–one that actually exists. Yet here she’s depicted as at best aloof, at worst just plain cold. The filmmakers never contacted King when making the movie. I find that very strange considering that they were making a movie about her and she’s always been accessible to the BRCA+ community. Most of all, I find their depiction of her as an icy lady scientist in this fictional scene appalling and terribly cliche.

I see why BRCA+ women have been promoting to this movie. We want a voice in the mainstream. We want some cultural artifact that explains our situation–something that we can point to when explaining things to people and be like “see that? that’s what I have, that’s what my family has been through, this is why I do what do even if it seem extreme to you.” This is one reason why most BRCA+ women were mostly supportive of Angelina Jolie’s NYT op ed. Decoding Annie Parker isn’t a terrible movie, but the filmmakers really missed their chances to make it a great one or at least a good one.

 

Mary-Claire King is a feminist

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I really disliked Kevin Davies’s and Micheal White’s Breakthrough, but on the plus side, it had this choice bit of info: “It is true that [Mary-Claire] King’s unwavering opinions irritate some of the male scientists with whom she comes in contact. She has strong feminist sentiments and, although certainly no man-hater, she can be quite scathing about male behavior. On numerous occasions, she has been critical of the patriarchal aspects of scientific research. Once, in comment on those men critical of her work in breast cancer, she said, ‘My colleagues were very skeptical, and you know how skeptical boys can be. Scorn! Scorn! Scorn!'” (72).

Again, Davies and White present feminism negatively, even when it comes to one of the heroes of the BRCA1 story, Mary-Claire King,  a woman who spent 20 years looking for the genes that cause hereditary breast and ovarian cancer despite the derision of her male colleagues.

I would guess that nearly every woman in a male dominated profession has encountered the kind of “Scorn! Scorn! Scorn!” King describes, but which Davies and White seem to dismiss. In a recent interview, Mary-Claire King has this to say about patriarchal science:

INTERVIEWER: “Is it still hard to be a female scientist? Is there more pressure and competition now?”

MARY-CLAIRE KING: “The social structure of science is now very different than 40 years ago, wonderfully so. But scientific success is still difficult for young women because the years that one must be most productive, in order to establish oneself as an independent investigator, coincide exactly with the years of childbearing. It is a tremendous challenge. It can be done, but it takes a village. We need to maintain constant attention to the personal and institutional and policy details that can keep the chance for scientific life open for young women.”

So I guess that one of the few good take aways from this book is that it confirms something I’ve long suspected: Mary-Claire King is a raging feminist. Rage on, Mary-Claire, rage on.

I leave you with the trailer for the film about King’s persistence in finding BRCA1, Decoding Annie Parker, which you’ll be able to see in wide release next year. Weirdly, in the interview I cited above, King says that the makers of the film didn’t consult her about it. It seems strange and rude to make a film about an accessible living figure without even dropping them an email. Luckily, she liked the movie, but still: not cool, filmmakers, not cool.