TV Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Black History Month)
This HBO program got an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Television Movie last year. Other than that one major award, this movie was mostly overlooked last spring. Nevertheless, it was by far one of the best things on TV in 2017. I didn’t get a chance to review it, but it’s a perfect movie to spotlight for Black History Month 2018. It was recognized this year at the Critics Choice Awards, the NAACP Image Awards with three nominations and the Directors Guild also nominated it for its helmer, George C. Wolfe, a multiple Tony Award-winner. The movie is an adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s book about Henrietta Lacks.
Black History Month is supposed to highlight the contributions that African-Americans have had in this country and world. Often times, black people go without the recognition that they deserve. So many black men and women have done so many incredible things. Yet, most people know nothing about it. Among those unsung, incredible people is Henrietta Lacks.
Lacks was a black woman who died in 1951 due to cervix cancer at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital. Before her death, a biopsy was taken of her cervical cancer. Her cancer cells called HeLa cells were studied and found to be very unique. Her cells were the first cells that could live outside the body forever. Her cells didn’t die even after days and even after years. Her cells were essentially immortal. This allowed scientists to do all kinds of experiments they couldn’t do before. This of course paved the way for leaps in biomedical research and even discoveries for other diseases. In 1954, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine.
The problem is that for decades, Lacks’ family was never informed that Lacks’ cells were so important to science and that those HeLa cells were being commercialized for lots of money. In fact, the identity of Lacks as being the origin of the HeLa cells was something that was intentionally hidden and the family was purposefully kept in the dark. This movie is about Lacks’ youngest daughter whose curiosity and dogged pursuit of information about her mother led to the family not being in the dark anymore.
Oprah Winfrey stars as Deborah Lacks, born in 1949, just two years before her mother’s death at age 31 and also two years before the discovery of the HeLa cells. Yet, we meet her in 1999, still living in Baltimore. Despite being 50 and needing a cane to walk, Deborah still gets around and gets around rather quickly. There’s an energy or spirit to her that is very lively. She’s almost restless. We hardly ever see her standing in one place for too long. She’s almost in constant motion, and it’s not just a restless body. Her mind is self-same, more than just emotional, mood swings. She also reads so much, especially science-fiction, inspired by her mother, and becomes swept up in things like cloning a la Jurassic Park.
Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids and Insidious) co-stars as Rebecca Skloot, a freelance writer whose father, like Lacks, was also the subject of medical experimentation. She happened upon knowledge about the HeLa cells and wanted to know where they came from. She does what she can to earn the trust of Deborah and tag along as Deborah dives and literally drives into her mother’s history, as well as her own. Byrne is known for her comedic roles recently and she definitely brings that charm but in a more subtle way here, as she’s the only white woman in a home full of black people.
Wolfe, who also co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t let Rebecca’s character dominate with forays into her life. The movie stays squarely about Deborah and her mother, Henrietta, played in flashback by Renée Elise Goldsberry, a Tony Award-winning actress. While Henrietta is held mostly in reverence, the movie isn’t shy about expressing some of the Lacks family’s uglier secrets like the crimes of Deborah’s brother. It’s not all serious. Wolfe does allow for some great comedic moments, balancing them greatly with the dramatic moments. For example, a sequence involving Mr. Cofield, a shady lawyer, was hilarious.
Wolfe can swing from hilarity like that to a wrenching and even shocking sequence like Henrietta’s burial in a rain storm where the roof flies off the house of a Clover, Virginia, slave plantation, blowing the roof off in more ways than one. It becomes clear that the black female body becomes an object simply to be used or abused, not only in Henrietta’s case but also in the case of her daughters, Deborah and her sister, Elsie. It’s powerful to behold and take in. The movie does end in one of the most heartbreaking scenes that reinforces what life is all about. I loved it just as I loved this movie. I also wept at the ending, which to me is always a sign of a good movie.
It should be noted that in 2010, Johns Hopkins established an annual lecture in Henrietta Lacks’ honor. In 2011, Morgan State University gave Lacks a posthumous doctorate in public service. A school in Washington state was named after Lacks. In 2014, Lacks was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2017, a minor planet was named after Lacks. A historical marker in Clover, Virginia, stands for her as well. Long live Henrietta Lacks!
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.
Available on HBO and on DVD/VOD.