Having first read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” my freshman year of high school, I was more than intrigued by the thought of the novel coming to life. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” written by Rebecca Skloot, follows the author’s journey in uncovering the equally tragic and fascinating story of how HeLa cells, arguably one of the most advancing scientific discoveries for the medical world, came to existence.
Henrietta Lacks, a young African American woman, became the unknowing donor of the famous cells when she died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Having come from the tumor that resulted in her death, HeLa cells were found by doctors to possess truly groundbreaking qualities. The cells had an extreme durability that allowed them to be multiplied indefinitely, as opposed to most other human cells that die after a given number of multiplications. For the first time in history, scientists had an immortal line of human cells, making it possible to test and retest at end until medical solutions for some of our most problematic and deadly diseases and illnesses were found. HeLa cells have been credited to the invention of the polio vaccine, furthering the understanding of a myriad of cancers, as well as AIDS and HPV. They continue to be at the forefront and foundation of scientific research.
But whilst, as the film phrases, the cultivation and distribution at mass of HeLa cells “gave birth to the biomedical industry,” the Lacks family had absolutely no knowledge that their own relative was contributing to such incredible medical advancements. Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta's daughters, hadn’t even known what type of cancer took her mother’s life. Since her mother’s death, she had a yearning to understand her mother’s fate and ever since finding out about the HeLa cells from a chance conversation, a yearning to understand not only the science behind HeLa but the legality and mistreatment her family continued to suffer from ever since.
In the original novel, the major scientific advancement that HeLa provided the medical world with was greatly expanded on, bringing a tremendous sense of wonder, amazement and understanding about what HeLa has done, and can do, for us. Though it is natural that details are to be cut in a film spanning only 90 minutes, the brief flashing of newspaper headlines and short narration of the importance of HeLa cells in the beginning of the film seemed hardly sufficient in conveying the scientific miracle at hand. The minute flashbacks to a young Henrietta scarcely do justice to the suffering Lacks experienced and the racist mistreatment and brutal treatments she received from doctors when she fell ill. In addition, the novel goes to great lengths to illustrate each member of the Lacks family’s individual sufferings (both mentally and financially) that make the distrust between them and medical officials, as well as the sympathy between them and the readers, all the more crucial to understanding the story at large, as well as massive parts of Deborah’s suffering. The film, in comparison, provides only small, rushed flashbacks in an attempt to build those dynamics found in the novel, leaving an unsatisfying incompletion of side stories that were rich and pertinent to the overarching narrative. Perhaps it would have been beneficial for the Lacks’ stories to span a few episodes rather than one film.
However, where the film lacks those intricate details, it picks up with Oprah Winfrey’s outstanding performance as Deborah Lacks. Remembering the novel, I knew that Lacks would not be an easy character to play, as she is often confused at her own stance on many of the situations regarding her family and her mother’s cells. Deborah’s past with teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, domestic violence and other familial deaths, along with speculation of having schizophrenia, leads to her frequent manic episodes in which she internally battles pushing past the racial mistreatment of the medical world on both her mother and herself to find the truth. When Skloot comes into her life, asking for these very details in order to publish a novel on the Lacks’ story, this internal struggle comes into play, leaving Deborah both exasperated and enthusiastic—a duality that seems quite difficult to convey. Winfrey nailed her performance of Lacks, turning the focal point of the film to Deborah’s complex story. Winfrey was rich and passionate in illustrating Deborah’s struggle, bringing raw emotions to the character. I felt extreme compassion at more dynamic and compelling levels watching the film than I had whilst reading the novel. Though the film and novel seek to play upon the developing relationship between Skloot, the ambitious journalist, and Deborah, the struggling daughter, in many ways Winfrey overpowered Rose Byrne (Rebecca Skloot), the latter playing a seemingly passive role throughout.
About halfway through the film, I found myself watching solely for Winfrey’s performance. While Winfrey had a truly beautiful portrayal that paid rightful tribute to Deborah Lacks, I had hoped to see more about Henrietta as a woman of color who contributed so much to the medical world unwillingly and unknowingly. As Skloot says tenderly in the film, “Deborah, there isn’t a person alive who hasn’t benefited from your mother’s cells.” For the science junkies who wish to know more about Henrietta’s experiences and the science behind HeLa cells in general, pick up a copy of the novel. The book also dives deeper into the chaotic and intertwined familial relationships that make up the Lacks family. For those who want to skip to the film, prepare for Winfrey to move you to tears with her heartbreaking performance, but know there is more to every story, especially that of the immortal Henrietta Lacks.
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.