Henrietta Lacks Immortalized

By Julia Clausen

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a recent HBO special based on the book by Rebecca Skloot, tells the story of the children of Henrietta Lacks as they confront their grief over the loss of their mother and investigate the mysteries of her life before she became a silent hero of the medical world.

For the average person who hasn’t studied much biology, the name Henrietta Lacks means absolutely nothing, but to biological research scientists, she is the woman whose cancer cells have helped to fight some of the world’s worst diseases, such as polio, cancer, HPV, and AIDS.

In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman in Baltimore, was treated at Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer, her doctors took a biopsy of her cancer cells without her consent. After she died, her cells became the first human cells observed that could live and reproduce outside the body, thus making them extremely useful for testing and research.

Upon making such a monumental discovery, scientists at Johns Hopkins removed Lacks’s name from the samples — shortening it to HeLa — and shipped these cells to research facilities all over the world. Eventually, someone discovered they could make a profit from selling these “immortal” cells.  But Lacks’s children, however, never saw a dime of that revenue.

Very few people understood the woman behind the HeLa cells until a journalist from Portland, Rebecca Skloot, decided to write a book about Henrietta Lacks. The HBO film documents Skloot (Rose Byrne) and Lacks’ only daughter Dell (Oprah Winfrey) as they search through the few remaining artifacts of Lacks’ life.

As Skloot digs up memories of Lacks, she also unearths the family’s struggle with exploitation by scientists and journalists over the years, as well as the traumas the children experienced when they lost their mother and lived with their abusive aunt and uncle. Overall, the story shows both the process of healing for Dell as she finally pieces together who her mother was and Skloot’s discovery of lives very different from her own; both narratives are emotionally compelling.

However, in many ways, “Henrietta Lacks” feels more like an educational film than a biopic. It bears a somewhat heavy-handed sense of purpose without much artistic unity or narrative balance.

The film covers everything from race relations to gender politics to the ethics of medical experimentation, as well as patenting laws, the justice system, and child abuse. For example, the film even seems to argue that the youngest son Zacariyya was driven to murder because of his fear and distrust for the people who took his mother’s cells. The one and a half hour film is so packed with heartbreaking themes that some of them get drowned out in the fast pace and emotional whiplash.

In order to make sense of so much information, the text in the prologue and epilogue of the film tells the viewer what to focus on — what should make them most angry and emotional. The point the film seems to be making is that these HeLa cells were illegally taken from Mrs. Lacks without her consent and that, even though her cells have helped fight and cure major diseases since 1951, her children have never received any money or direct benefits.

There are multiple moments of catharsis for Dell in her journey — from crying in the rain, to having a nervous breakdown as her uncle prays over her, to seeing her mother’s cells in person for the first time — each with the swelling music and sweeping camera movements typical of those emotional pinnacles. However, each moment deals with a slightly different issue. Then suddenly, with little resolution or explanation, Skloot returns to Baltimore to show the finished book to the family only to discover that Dell has died. More time is spent explaining the HeLa cells than resolving the life Dell lived as a result of those cells.

The film certainly does have its merits, including a few poignant moments which sustain the audience through the rest of the narrative. Perhaps the most beautiful scene depicts the first time Dell got to hold a small vial of her mother’s cells, which were cold because they were stored in a freezer. “She’s cold,” Dell says, and gently blows on the vial for warmth. Suddenly the audience realizes this is the closest she’s been to her mother since she was two years old. The film gives a soul and a family to the tiny cells that drive home the severity of the theft researchers committed.

Again, even the intimate and emotional moments all point back to the message (or messages) the film tries to convey, and it certainly succeeds in causing the audience to think — about the consequences of callous research practices; about the systemic racism that allowed exploitation to occur without consequences; and about the powerful thought that an ordinary African American woman from Baltimore has saved the lives of perhaps millions of people.

Ultimately, was the film any good? Not particularly. But did it achieve its moralistic goal? I believe so.