In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, despite receiving treatment from Johns Hopkins University. During her treatment, her doctor took a sample of her tumor. These so called HeLa cells—taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent—have been used for years by scientists to understand diseases like cancer and have led to the polio vaccine. Coincidentally during Black History Month, fifty-nine years after Lacks’ death, and eight years ago on February second, Henrietta is further immortalized by journalist Rebecca Skloot in her published a nonfiction book, and more recently in an HBO special, both titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Debuting on April 22, 2017, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” discusses the struggles of the family after Henrietta’s death, the effects of racism in the scientific community, and the amazing things Henrietta’s cells have done for science. On the eighth anniversary of the novel, it’s worth taking a look at the touching film that documents the pain the Lacks family still feels after being lied to by Johns Hopkins University about their own mother.
For most of the film Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne), a journalist interested in the Lacks’, and Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) travel around the country trying to piece together Henrietta’s past. However, this proves more difficult than expected because the family barely trusts Rebecca. Considering how much the Lacks family has been lied to—specifically by white people who are looking to profit off of their mother’s cells—the family is wary of Rebecca, who appears to the family to be just another outsider trying to take advantage of them. It is not made any easier by Deborah’s history of a diverse group of mental health problems.
Oprah does an excellent job playing Deborah Lacks. She acutely depicts the family’s pain and the confusion that accompanies it. Her character simultaneously portrayed the nostalgia the Lacks family felt towards Henrietta as well as the psychological damage that comes with a situation like this. Oprah perfectly exemplified a daughter hoping to learn more about her mother, but also brought tremendous gravitas in her portrayal of Deborah’s mental disorders. In these moments, Deborah’s agony is palpable as she tries to grapple with her desire to know more about her mother and her distrust of others.
This film does an excellent job explaining the scientific relevance of HeLa cells without feeling like a scientific documentary. Instead, it is an emotional movie about a family who has been taken advantage of and the generational consequences of exploitation. Although the scientific facts are important, the focus on the human element makes for a movie with a more coherent story.
“The Immortal Life” is a poignant film about race relations both in the 1950s and today. The Lacks family had little research-level education, a reality scientists used to justify the taking of Henrietta’s cells without giving the family any of the profit. This is not true for all scientists—in fact many are quite grateful—but those who believe Johns Hopkins University acted ethically often point to the family’s lack of education as a driving factor for why they didn’t need to be a part of the operation. Instead of taking the opportunity to teach those who need it, the university exploited an imbalance in educational attainment to get more information from the family and keep them unaware of the fact that they are being cheated out of large sums of money.
The movie compellingly intertwines the scientific and the dramatic. Not only does it tell of the important role that HeLa cells have played in creating vaccines and understanding deadly diseases, it also discusses the trauma caused to a family who lost a loved one. The family did more than lose Henrietta: they were also cheated out of any recognition or a cut of the millions of dollars that Johns Hopkins has made off of the distribution of the HeLa cells. This film exhibits an interesting intersection of race relations and science that forces the question of the ethicality of practices that are still in effect today.
We also take a more specific look at how the documentary adapts and represents the book itself in our ongoing series, “Page to Screen.” Check it out here.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew.
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“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:” The Scientific and the Sentimental