The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

| September 6, 2017

In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to the hospital to have a hard lump she discovered inside her own cervix biopsied.  The lump was cancerous and would end up taking her life.  Normally, this is where the story would end, but in Henrietta’s case, the doctors discovered that her cancer cells were unique; they could survive indefinitely outside of Henrietta’s body, multiplying and thriving seemingly forever.  It’s been 66 years and Henrietta’s cells are still alive and still multiplying.  They have been used in countless medical experiments to further our knowledge of how the body functions and lay the groundwork for stem cell research, cloning, tissue regeneration, vaccines, and much more.  There is literally nobody on the planet who has not benefitted from Henrietta and her cells.

When Rebecca Skloot first found out about Henrietta, she became fascinated by the woman behind the famous HeLa cells and set out to write a book about Henrietta herself, tracking down the surviving members of her family in a bizarre tale that feels strangely appropriate given Henrietta’s unique contribution to science.  Skloot’s book is really interesting, even to someone like me who knows very little about cellular biology.  She sets out to tell Henrietta’s story and that’s what she does, getting swept up in her family’s drama along the way, but the book is a comprehensive biography of Henrietta Lacks.  This film, unfortunately, abandons the core purpose of Skloot’s (Rose Byrne; X-Men: First Class) book to focus on her writing of it and her unusual friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah (Oprah Winfrey).

The book is a very human story about a woman who was just trying to get by and provide for her five children without having any idea of her destiny to change the world.  It’s a story of poverty, rape, incest, and devastation that continues on after Henrietta’s death and her cells going on to form the basis for a multimillion dollar industry that to this day has not benefitted her family a single dollar.  Aside from Oprah’s performance, the film didn’t have much for me.  I learned a bit more about what HeLa was used for, and Oprah is great as Deborah.  She’s wonderfully complicated in how protective of her mother’s memory she can be while wanting to learn as much as she can and make sure others know about her too.  She goes from being too trusting to completely closed off on a dime and it creates some really powerful scenes.  Byrne, who I tend to really like isn’t given much to do here other than ask the other characters permission to record them or find herself adorably befuddled by being thrown into a poor black community.

The film removes Henrietta’s entire life story, or reduces it to other characters talking about her rather than showing us her life in-scene.  The moments when we get a glimpse into Henrietta making dinner for dozens of people or telling her best friends that she has cancer, that was the best part of the film for me and I could have done with a movie that set out to just tell Henrietta’s story without even having the Skloot character around at all.  There’s one line in the movie where Deborah insists that Skloot put herself in the book so she doesn’t have to be in it by herself, but that feels like an excuse to make the book about her.  I forgive this choice because her interactions with the family are good storytelling and they don’t distract from the main drive of the book to tell us about Henrietta.  The film feels much more like the Rebecca Skloot show, which I feel defeats the purpose.

Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment.

About the Author:

Joe Ketchum Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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