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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

Directed by: George C. Wolfe

Premise: Based on the nonfiction book. Author Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) writes a book about the origin of HeLa cells which were harvested from cancer patient Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Skloot teams with Lacks’ daughter Deborah (Oprah Winfrey) to explore this woman’s life.

What Works: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is very much an Oprah Winfrey production. She co-stars in the film as Deborah Lacks, Winfrey is credited as an executive producer, and the movie was made under Winfrey’s Harpo Films production company. The subject matter of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks seems tailor made for Winfrey; the film dramatizes a true story of female characters coping with legacies of abuse and trauma. However, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a much better film than many of the projects Oprah Winfrey has been associated with and this picture does a good job of addressing the horror of abuse and the ongoing pain of survivors without becoming maudlin or exploitative. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a good example of a story gradually revealing its subject to the audience. The film begins as the story of author Rebecca Skloot who is researching a book about HeLa cells and intends to explore the identity of the woman who was the source of those cells. She makes contact with the Lacks family and teams with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The film gradually reveals itself to be Deborah’s story as the daughter reconciles with the past. The family is suspicious of Rebecca; they have been exploited by the medical industry and by charlatans and Deborah in particular suffers from emotional and psychological issues due to various traumas that she suffered as a young woman. Deborah gradually learns to trust Rebecca and their relationship builds credibly. Oprah Winfrey has regularly acted in films for the past thirty years but she’s rarely played a leading role and this is one of Winfrey’s best performances. She doesn’t feel like Oprah in this movie and she conveys the paranoia and pain of her character. Winfrey is well paired with Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot. There is an obvious but rarely spoken racial tension between Rebecca and the Lacks family; it’s apparent in her awkwardness around the Lacks family and Rose Byrne plays that well. The plot doesn’t give Byrne a lot of character defining moments but the actress seizes upon the material to create a full-fledged character.

What Doesn’t: Some aspects of Henrietta Lacks’ story are insufficiently explored or become muddled in this movie. The Lacks family was large and it isn’t always clear how everyone relates to each other. Also left vague is the ethics of how Henrietta was treated by the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Part of the point of this story is the financial and ethical injustice that was committed against Henrietta Lacks and her family by the medical industry. The main point, frequently reiterated by Deborah, is that pharmaceutical companies and similar entities made lots of money from discoveries made possible by HeLa cells. This aspect of the story is only sketched in the movie and it sidesteps the difficult ethical questions that Henrietta’s story represents. Many important medical discoveries were achieved and there is a legitimate question as to whether the ends justified the means. Ironically, the key thing missing from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the titular character herself. This film is actually Deborah’s story as she comes to terms with the consequences of her mother’s illness and death and everything that followed. Nevertheless, Rebecca and Deborah’s project was to reveal who Henrietta was and put an identity to her name. Henrietta is shown in flashbacks but she remains mostly an enigma. The film doesn’t really tell us who she was at least not in a meaningful way.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a serviceable drama. It stops short of its stated goal but the movie provides a satisfying story of people coming to terms with their history while exposing an unfortunate reality of the past.

Episode: #664 (September 10, 2017)