By Chaz Lipp

The Lowdown: While the story is simply too big and too complex to comfortably scale down to 90 minutes, this fascinating true story is essential—and Oprah Winfrey’s bravura performance well worth seeing.

HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based on the nonfiction bestseller of the same name by science writer Rebecca Skloot. I’ve not read the book, but the film is good enough to inspire me to do so. Hopefully that was the ultimate goal of the producers (including the film’s star Oprah Winfrey) and writer-director George C. Wolfe (Nights in Rodanthe, also an acclaimed stage director): to bring the story of the late Ms. Lacks’ HeLa cell line into the mainstream, utilizing the reach of the film/TV medium to rope in non-readers. While the real-life story seems too big, too complex for a 90-minute film, The Immortal Life essays a truly unique piece of history.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cancer in 1951 at age 31. Sample cells from the malignant tumor, taken without the dying Lacks’ knowledge or consent, were the first immortalized cell line ever discovered. Unlike all other cancer cells previously known to medical science, Ms. Lacks’ cells self-replicated endlessly instead of simply dying off within a few days. This meant scientists, with an endless supply of thriving cells, could use them for research purposes indefinitely (and are, in fact, still being utilized to this day). I’m not going to pretend to fully understand any of the scientific complexities, but the upshot is that the HeLa (first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name, though misidentified as “Helen Lane” for years) cells have been used not only in cancer research, but countless additional areas of medical science.

And this is just the back story for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, explained to us in a breathless, vintage newsreel-style opening scored to jazz by Branford Marsalis. The film, set in 1999, actually tells the story of Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) researching and writing Ms. Lacks’ story. As Rebecca works to earn the Lacks family’s trust, especially that of her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), it becomes clear to her that they’ve been jerked around for decades. There’s precious little information available about Henrietta (portrayed in brief flashbacks by Renée Elise Goldsberry). Deborah wants to know her mother’s full story far more than Rebecca, having had only bits and pieces of info passed along for her entire life. The Lacks’ family, who never received a penny of the millions in revenue generated by the commercialization of the HeLa cell line, struggles to accept Rebecca’s apparent altruism at face value.

In other words, the movie isn’t really the story of Henrietta Lacks regardless of what the title suggests. This is the story of Deborah and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the surviving Lacks family coming to terms with their legacy. Shocking family secrets are exposed (including the tragic fate of Deborah’s sister Elsie) as Rebecca digs deeper into their background. The anger and ongoing confusion expressed by Deborah and her family are well justified—Rebecca eventually learns they’ve been lied to by the medical industry, outright ignored when searching for answers, and preyed upon by vulturous opportunists ever since Henrietta passed on.

Wolfe frames The Immortal Life as something of a “white savior” narrative. However true it may be that a young, white journalist was the person who cared enough to dedicate a significant portion of her life to bringing their story to life, the film uses the Rebecca character as a point of entry for viewing the Lacks family from the outside in. It could easily have been handled another way, with Deborah and her family serving as the center of the story as an outsider intrudes. Be that as it may, Wolfe’s film is highly recommended viewing as a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the Lacks family story. Oprah Winfrey’s rangy, passionate performance as the unpredictable Deborah is a wonder that must be seen. And despite the character as written being something of a cipher, Rose Byrne does a solid job of portraying Rebecca’s sense of purpose despite her bewilderment in the face of the Lacks’ eccentricity and wavering trust.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks images: HBO Home Entertainment

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