Film Review: HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a vital bio-pic about the most important woman in medical history

The name Henrietta Lacks may not mean an awful lot to some people but in reality it should be one of the most famous names in history. Lacks is responsible for revolutionising modern medicine and contributing to every recent major medical breakthrough from vaccines for polio, HPV and the flu-shot; to IVF and treatments for cancer and AIDs. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an excellent bio-pic that gives some long-overdue credit to where it is due.

This film is based on the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name by science journalist, Rebecca Skloot. In this telemovie she is portrayed by our very own Rose Byrne who gives quite a measured and mature performance. Oprah Winfrey also stars and serves as the executive producer. Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks, the youngest daughter of Henrietta. Deborah is an interesting character who can be quite rough and erratic but ultimately she is just trying to discover who her mother really was and use this knowledge as a means of understanding her own identity.

Prior to 1951 scientists had struggled to successfully grow human cells in the laboratory. Enter Henrietta Lacks (Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry), a poor tobacco farmer and the grandchild of slaves. In 1951 shortly after Lacks had given birth to Deborah she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Lacks struggled to find a place to treat her disease in this time of racial segregation.

Eventually Lacks received treatment for her cancer at John Hopkins University. During the course of this treatment a sliver of Lacks’ tumour was removed without her knowledge or consent and used for research purposes. Scientists were shocked when they discovered that these cells had an increased lifespan and could be used and grown in the lab. Lacks’ children were also subjected to some questionable medical ethics as they were forced to provide blood samples where they were told it would be to screen/measure for their own risk of developing cancer. In reality, these samples were actually used to investigate the genetic markers of Lacks’ DNA.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells became known as HeLa cells and they continue to be used to this day. The surviving family did not learn about Henrietta’s contribution to medical history until almost two decades after her death. This film covers a significant portion of Skloot’s investigation into piecing together Lacks’ history but it does not point the finger at anyone specifically with respect to the wrongs that occurred.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a heart-wrenching true story of an injustice that was wrought by the medical profession as well as the amazing contribution that this act had with respect to the betterment of humankind. This film is an emotional one that looks at important issues like medical ethics, racism, poverty, family and friendship. It is ultimately essential viewing because it is such an important and visceral true-life drama and like the recent film, Hidden Figures, it finally gives long-overdue credit to an individual who played an important role and who has also been erased from the history books until now. Brilliant.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres on HBO in the USA on Saturday, April 22nd at 8pm. It will screen in Australia on Foxtel’s Showcase.


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