In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, 31, died of cervical cancer. While she was being treated in Baltimore, doctors removed some of her tumor cells and discovered that they were able to survive in a laboratory, even past Lacks’ death.
The cells were known as HeLa, a shortened portmanteau of her name, and they were replicated and sent to various laboratories for study. The only problem was that neither Lacks nor any member of her family were notified.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a journalist trying to tell Lacks’ story.
The film, released by HBO, is based on the 2010 best-selling book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot is depicted in her attempts to research and write the book through conversations with the Lacks family around 50 years after Henrietta’s death.
The family is hesitant, to say the least, and is hurt by decades of knowledge that their mother’s cells were used for tests and nothing was given to her or her family in return.
The film’s subtext is one of a long line of racial abuse, of using people without their consent and profiting as a result.
At one point in the film, the Lacks family is approached by somebody offering to help them sue for reparations. It is painful to see the way a woman was used, her own cells cloned and utilized without her knowledge, parts of her body being sold and the hurt that a family had to deal with as a result.
As Skloot learns the story of Henrietta, she also learns the story of the rest of the family. She meets Deborah, the paranoid daughter of Henrietta, who wants to learn more about her mother and forgotten sister. Her brother Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, recently released from prison, also meets with Skloot though he is unenthusiastic about sharing information.
Both experienced some form of personal damage after their mother’s death, Rahman getting involved with abuse and eventual imprisonment, and Deborah suffering with medical and mental issues that came as a result.
Though it is about discovering the story of Henrietta, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more a story that reflects on a relationship that came afterward, of the connection built between Skloot and the Lacks family, especially Deborah.
She comes to them as a journalist, which automatically raises questions for them, but she tells them multiple times that all she wants is to write a book about Henrietta and has no interest in profiting off of the family.
The underlying connection to slavery and its long-lasting effects on the culture of the United States and sociology are ever-present.
When Deborah comes with Skloot to the mental hospital that the former’s sister had been in, Deborah is met with scorn, while Skloot is addressed politely, all questions directed to her. When presenting a proposal for her book, Skloot is told to take the family out of the story.
The main power of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is in its ability to tie into these forces and feelings of historical resonance.
In the role of Deborah, Oprah Winfrey helps bring the pathos to tie in such a connection. She moves from caring to paranoid, playing it all with an accent and a limp. Her acting is a strong force throughout.
Though the subtext is interesting, the narrative is not one which excites much. The drama is at times lacking and the meaning comes more from what is going on beneath the surface.
It is about the people who are seen as less than they are, not expected to understand the reasoning behind taking cells. It is about the historical trend of white people taking and taking, with no consequence to them and little for the people of color they are taking from.
The film is peppered with flashback scenes, showing Renee Elise Goldsberry as the titular Henrietta. She occasionally speaks, but mostly she is just haunting the screen, becoming again and again present in the minds of those who miss her most.
The HeLa cells that came from her mutate to the point where doctors say they are no longer Henrietta’s, but her family thinks otherwise.
The question of humanity and identity comes out of this, asking whether these cells are still hers. The family refers to the cells as if they themselves are her.
They are the last trace of her on earth, aside from a single photograph with a torn corner. When the cells are seen as the human being herself, trading them is more tragic, the cells themselves become more poignant, acting as imagery to be revered.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a film in the tradition of those like Hidden Figures, showing achievements that have been looked over and mistreatment geared toward women and people of color.
While it is unfortunate that this country’s history is rife with stories of marginalization, it is good that they are finally being recognized and having light shed on them to bring awareness.
The film is available on HBO GO and HBO NOW. It is the kind of film one watches because they should, not only because they want to. Hopefully awareness will spread around the issue and some kind of reparation will be made preventing real-life tragedies from occurring again and again.
Until then, it is good to have the artists that we have, revealing the lives of those that have been relatively unknown.