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HBO Films: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Review

By Eleonora Iafano on Apr 24, 2017 to HBO Films

Watching something about a deceased parent, the pain of loss, the lacking of vital information and family heartache is never an easy film to explore. Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne star as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter and Rebecca Skloot, the journalist, in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This movie is meant to explore all the good that Henrietta’s cell line did for medicine and science from that day forward and yet it also explores the depression and heartache that her children experienced for decades. It is not a feel-good story – rather it is one of a long, painful journey of some sort of redemption on the part of the medical industry and one of painful understanding for the family, mainly Deborah. If you never heard of He
nrietta Lacks, her family or the enormous contribution she made posthumously to medicine and science, then I suggest watching this movie, because it will be made clearer to you just how significant this woman was.  

The movie uses events from the time that Rebecca reaches out to the Lacks family and also flashbacks, where we see Henrietta Lacks as a real human being, who had a family, friends, feelings and dreams for her children. And how tragically her life was cut short – and how glaringly different African American people were treated by the medical field back in the time of the 1950s. I was filled with frustration and rage because nobody should be treated so cruelly. Nobody.We see small snippets of Henrietta with her children, walking around, spending time with her friends and being admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital for a cancerous tumor found in her uterus. There wasn’t much medical knowledge about how to treat cervical cancer back in those days. You see small glimpses of an unconscious Henrietta in the operating room, surrounded by doctors and then a small sample of her biopsy cells placed in a petri dish for further examination. Little did anyone know just how influential those cells would be. They lived longer than any other cells did, in fact, they were hearty enough to multiply and survive prolonged periods of cryogenic freezing. The HeLa cells would divide and be used in multiple medical experiments (vaccines, research, gene maps, pharmaceuticals). While this was fantastic for medicine and science, somewhere, a family had lost its’ mother and the children suffered from abuse and neglect at the hands of other relatives. It’s hard to imagine the pain and emotional/physical trauma they all suffered – and that they never knew about their mother’s cells being used and reproduced in medical labs. 

Oprah plays Deborah Lacks and I have to say, she gives a pretty good performance of a woman who has suffered severely – and yet, perseveres with a dogged determination to find out all that she can about what happened to her mother, both medically and historically. It’s not without its emotional wounds: bringing up past hurts only adds to the pain and feeling of isolation, anxiety, despair and anger. When watching what the Lacks family endured over the decades, it’s not surprising that the surviving members were skeptical – especially when it came to outsiders and anyone trying to find out information about the HeLa cells. I don’t blame them one bit – a particularly compelling scene in the movie is showcased when a phony lawyer with a slick suit and impressive legal jargon tries to convince the family that they are going to sue Johns Hopkins University and get millions of dollars in damages. Well, what’s the saying about when something sounds too good to be true? Guess what? It usually is. This is a family that has had hope and dignity taken away from them as far as they are concerned. The family couldn’t see past that; they couldn’t see the medical breakthroughs that all this enabled. 

Deborah is both harsh and hopeful, especially when dealing with Rebecca, who is an eager journalist with a biology degree and just wants to do the necessary research about the HeLa cells and find out who the woman was behind all the medical breakthroughs. Rebecca, being a white woman and not having the devastating childhood like Deborah, cannot possibly relate to what any member of the Lacks family has gone through. She is simply trying to give Henrietta a voice and desperately wants to get the facts out there. Many a time in the movie, Deborah is angry and lashes out. When you hear what she endured as a child and as a teenager, it’s no wonder Deborah is so angry
and mistrustful. I would be too if I went through even a quarter of what she went through.

When records are provided and medical reports, scientific papers are collected and pieces of the Lacks family history are pieced together, it is extremely taxing on Deborah and her brothers. She finds out that her sister was severely disabled and that nobody even knew what had happened to her, except that Henrietta could not physically cope anymore by trying to raise an infant, a toddler and several children, plus work and provide for her family and throw into the mix that there was a daughter who could not do anything for herself and was mentally incapacitated – well, it was more than the poor woman could bear. Imagine being Deborah Lacks and finally reading the autopsy report and information from the asylum where her sister was brought to. Just another wound ripped open and raw, another hope dashed away and another loss to the Lacks family. Deborah and Rebecca form an unlikely partnership and when the research is finally finished, Rebecca is able to get a book deal and towards the end of the movie, it’s as if Rebecca is getting a real keen insight to the Lacks family and all that they endured. Deborah appears to gain some inner peace and some tiny sense of closure. Although, with years of depression and mental health issues as a result of what she went through, can a person ever truly get the closure they need? The book gets published, but unfortunately, Deborah ended up dying in her sleep about eight months before the actual release date – before she could even get a chance to read it.

Questions about how the medical professionals could just take cells from a human and not ask for consent were mentioned and back in the day, the laws of medical consent weren’t in existence. So, any operation that a person would go to the hospital for, any sort of tissue samples that were viable was fair game. This is very sad because the Lacks family deserved to be compensated financially, given all the research and breakthroughs provided by their late mother’s cells.  I think this movie was adapted very well from the book but if you are interested in finding out a little more about the HeLa cells and the woman behind them, I would also recommend reading the book.   













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