Movie Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on the book by Rebecca Skloot, opens big by showing the creation and subsequent global propagation of the HeLa cell line, and closes on a profoundly intimate scale, focusing on the family that Henrietta left behind. Oprah Winfrey, as Deborah Lacks, dominates the movie, but there are also non-Oprah things here that are good! The soundtrack is excellent, the supporting cast is outstanding, and the cinematography is on point. Overall, it’s a great complement to the book.

Background: in 1951, Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but not before cells from her tumor are harvested by the Gey lab at Johns Hopkins. HeLa, the celebrity nickname of these immortal cells, quickly became the foundation for biomedical research and has been instrumental in the development of cures such as the polio vaccine, to name just one example of its myriad uses. To this day, HeLa is the most commonly used human cell line in scientific research, and is manufactured and sold by life science corporations.

The main conflict in the movie, as in the book, centers on family. Henrietta's husband and children were completely unaware of HeLa, and that the cancer that took her away from them was benefiting so many others. When they find out, Henrietta's sons want compensation, while her daughter Deborah (Oprah) is hungry for details about the mother she never knew. But the research community provides very little information to the family, who come to distrust Johns Hopkins. This wariness extends to Rebecca, who is on a mission to uncover the story of Henrietta the person, not just the cell line. Winning over Deborah is key to Skloot's success, since both women share this common goal.

The book does a fantastic job of recounting Henrietta's life, death, and immortality, while the movie is more focused on Rebecca and Deborah's journey. Oprah's skill as an actress shines here, as she expresses the many emotions of Deborah, a woman who suffers from various physical and mental issues. Byrne plays Rebecca as earnest, awkward, and determined, and the actresses have good chemistry. Together, they travel to the places that Henrietta touched: Clover, Virginia, where she lived; the former institution where Henrietta's eldest daughter died; and finally, Johns Hopkins, where Henrietta first became immortal.

Visual imagery, of course, is where the movie tops the book, especially the scene at Johns Hopkins where the cells are shown stained with dyes. And the cast is just phenomenal. The tearful delight of Deborah and her brother Zakariya (Reg E. Cathey in a powerful performance), when shown a vial of their mother's cells, underlines just how much Henrietta is missed. Henrietta herself is shown in flashbacks as Tony Award winner and foremost Schuyler sister Renée Elise Goldsberry, who has the necessary heartbreaking beauty for the role.

In conclusion, read the book if you want thorough descriptions of the woman and the small lab behind HeLa cells, the meaty details of the evolution of ethical considerations and legalities in research, and engaging questions about science, legacies, and our bodies. Watch the movie if you want to watch two women navigate suspicion, intellectual disdain, racial disparities, and crippling loss to find out about another woman and thereby gain some semblance of justice and closure. Or better yet, read the book AND watch the movie, like a true nerd! What else you gonna do on a weekend?

TL;DR: Best watched after reading the book!

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This post brought to you by peanut butter!