The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Family -
Medicine -
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is powerful
George C Woolf
Peter Landesman,
Rebecca Skloot
Oprah Winfrey,
Rose Byrne,
Renee Elise Goldsberry
Run time
HBO Films
Distribution Date
Apr 22, 2017

Confession time.  I haven’t read best-selling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot which this film of the same name was based on. Many who have read the book say that you shouldn’t bother with the movie.  I’d like to argue that the film stands on its own. I loved it.

After watching The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I immediately googled if a made-for-HBO movie actor can be nominated for an Oscar? The answer is yes, yes they can, and therefore I am starting the 2018 nomination buzz early by throwing Oprah Winfrey’s (The Color Purple) name in the best-supporting actress mix. Holy mother of all that is holy, Oprah is beyond brilliant in her role of Lacks’ daughter, Deborah Lacks Pullum.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based on a true story. It tells the story of the unethical scientific study of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells. Removed from her cervix and cultured by the doctors at John Hopkin’s Hospital without her permission, Lacks’ cells were given the name HeLa. For decades, they were used in widespread global medical research while the source and identity of their origin were hidden. Her family was never told nor compensated for their use.

The film follows freelance writer Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) who wishes to write about Henrietta like no other writer has. Deborah, Lacks’ daughter played by Oprah, has developed an understandable deep distrust of strangers wanting to know anything about her mother. Skloot perseveres to form a friendship with Deborah and the two search for the truth behind Henrietta’s story.

There’s a clear attempt by the filmmakers to give much of the story to Deborah rather than Skloot. It’s problematic that the story was originally written by a white author seeking justice for a black family. The family’s exploitation of their story can be seen to continue in book and now movie form. The film doesn’t shy away from this point and addresses Skloot’s dicey position as storyteller by shifting much of the narrative to Deborah. I just wish the film didn’t sit behind Skloot’s gaze as she watches Deborah’s family life unfold. It would have been so much stronger if the story was truly Deborah’s story.

We learn how Lacks and her family were treated by doctors in 1951 when her cells were harvested. At the time, she went to the hospital for cervical cancer where her tumor was biopsied. It wasn’t clear if the doctors focused on curing her, but it was made clear that the medical community treated her like a discarded vessel rather than a person.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a rollercoaster of emotion and the acting from Oprah Winfrey is beyond description but I’ll try anyway.

Oprah freakin Winfrey, I have adored her for many years and I take her advice very seriously. But she is so underrated as an actress and this film proves that she is not a billionaire talk show host turned wannabe actress. Her subtle choices and transformation into Deborah is simply phenomenal.

It was risky casting someone so famous in this role. Deborah needed to be seen as real and relatable, and I don’t know if many of us can relate to Oprah Winfrey. But she pulls it off so very well. I didn’t once want to shout out “you get a car, and you get a car, everybody gets a car.” She transformed herself physically and emotionally.

So, here’s the thing. In all honestly, I battle with stories about cancer. For me, it’s like typing Voldemort's name. It feels wrong and if I write it down, I fear it will come back into my life. I am currently losing a loved one to cancer now and unfortunately, that is not the first time I have written that sentence. And I know many people are experiencing the same thing. However, there is a universality about the disease because we all become connected by the pain it causes. And although pain is something we all wish to avoid, by experiencing it together, we hopefully become stronger when it invades our lives. Seeing the effects of it on screen binds us together.

Yes, Lacks’ cells saved lives, but they also killed her. Her life mattered and her family mattered. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks does an incredible job of telling her story and it is true, in a way, that Henrietta is immortal. Her cells will continue to be researched to help cure the world. But I ask that next time you hear that HeLa cells helped further medical advancements, remember that there was a person behind all of it and she was loved by so many.

About the Contributor

Jules recently moved to Toronto from New Zealand to see how the other side of the world lives – apparently it is not that different. She is the social media guru and a film reviewer for Narrative Muse and gets beyond excited about anything muse-worthy. She can also connect any actress or actor to Meryl Streep in 6 degrees of separation – that’s a lot harder than you think.