This is one of those films that will make you want to learn more about the story of Henrietta Lacks after your first viewing.
The story of Henrietta Lacks may be familiar to most of us, but for those who are not connected to the story, the experimentation of Black men and women’s bodies for medical science is documented throughout history, like the story of The Tuskegee Experiment where men diagnosed with Syphilis were never properly treated nor told they had the disease. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, when she discovered there was a lump in her cervix, Lacks attended Johns Hopkins hospital, the only hospital in her area that treated African-American patients. It was at this very facility where her cells were unknowingly harvested from her body and used for medical research. Her cells would inevitably be known as the immortalized HeLa cell line, which under proper conditions can indefinitely be reproduced. The HeLa cell line has led to advancements in research to treat polio, cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and other toxic substances. Henrietta’s cells have saved hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of lives since this medical breakthrough happened.
In the HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, executive produced by Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, Oprah Winfrey, Carla Gardini and Lydia Dean Pilcher; the story is told through the lens of author Rebecca Skloot (played by Rose Byrne) and Henrietta’s pertinacious daughter Deborah Lacks (played by Oprah Winfrey). Directed by George C. Wolfe from a screenplay by Peter Landesman and Alexander Woo and Wolfe, the film is based on the book by Rebecca Skloot. The story opens up with the origin story of how and why HeLa was named for the indefinite reproductive cells and how in 1954, Microbiological Associates began selling HeLa cells which gave birth to the biomedical industry. The tragedy in all of this is that for several decades many drug companies have profited off of HeLa, yet the Lacks family never received one red cent from anyone during all of these years.
Rebecca Skloot (who also serves as co-executive producer) is at the forefront of this story as a scientific medical journalist who is resolved and passionately seeks to learn more about who Henrietta Lacks was. Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent ten years researching the story behind the HeLa cells, trying to bring Lacks’ story to light. The movie is an adaptation of her 2010 New York Times bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,”. Skloot was inspired based on her father’s own unethical treatment at a hospital. When the medical researcher found out about Henrietta Lacks in school and no one could tell her who she was; this was the impetus to study and investigate who Henrietta Lacks the person was, as opposed to knowing just a small component of her DNA. Skloot not only wants to find more about Lacks but also works diligently to earn the trust of the Lacks family who has been swindled and betrayed throughout the years.
This journey is led by Deborah Lacks, who’s just as strong-willed as Skloot and wants some closure about her mother’s past. Deborah lost her mother at the tender age of two years old and finds some comfort in knowing that the real story of what happened will finally be told. This is where our story begins. Several members of the Lacks family served as consultants on the film, including Henrietta Lacks’ children, Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman and David Lacks, Jr., and grandchildren, Jeri Lacks Whye, Alfred Carter, Jr. and La Tonya Carter.
In one of her most notable performances to date, Oprah Winfrey delivers an extraordinary portrayal of Henrietta’s daughter and we begin to see more of Deborah’s mental state as she digs deeper into her mother’s past. As layer upon layer of pieces of Henrietta’s history is revealed, the more difficult it is for her daughter to cope with her discovery. A past filled pain, abuse, neglect, and anger are slowly uncovered as medical records are found and buried memories from long ago begin to penetrate its way to the surface.
The beautiful melodic and signature jazz stylings of Branford Marsalis are heard throughout the film which sets an old-fashioned tone and ambiance to the film as the narrative travels backward to flashbacks of Henrietta’s life as a mother and philanthropist as well as bring us in current day to the rural setting of Clover, Virginia where the Lacks family grew up. The music fits perfectly and at times seems as if it’s a character itself in the story. And speaking of characters, this film has an amazing cast which comprises of Renée Elise Goldsberry (Henrietta Lacks), Reg Cathey (Zakariyya Lacks), Courtney Vance (Sir Lord Keenan Coefield) and Leslie Uggams (Sadie). This compelling tale of who Henrietta Lacks was and who she continues to be will indelibly remain one of true Black girl magic.
We remember you, Henrietta Lacks.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres SATURDAY, APRIL 22 at 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on HBO.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critic Association