Review of HBO’s Adaptation of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

When I heard that HBO was working on an adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” my excitement knew no bounds. Despite my enthusiasm, I was skeptical. Anyone that knows me will tell you that I am cynical about almost everything. But, my reservations died down when I discovered Oprah would be behind the project. I figured this adaptation would be made faithfully with Oprah’s support and input on the project. Oprah’s name is synonymous with quality, right? Regardless, the story behind HeLa cells is so important and influential to society as a whole. If anyone could bring Henrietta’s name to the forefront of mainstream culture, it would be Oprah.

“Being a student of African American history, I was thrown by the idea that I’d never heard of Henrietta Lacks, and especially having lived in Baltimore…”— Oprah Winfrey

I first read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” during my second year in grad school. I had heard the story before. And as a woman of color in the sciences, it infuriated me to discover exactly how deceitful researchers had been to Henrietta’s family. Reading about how much she struggled seeking treatment for her cancer during the later years of her life. A big part of why “Immortal Life” resonated with me was the detailed account of Henrietta’s life. Well, as detailed as possible.
HBO’s adaptation of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” focuses on Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah King (Oprah Winfrey) and the book’s author, Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne). The film does an excellent job of portraying the vulnerability of Deborah King and her earnest quest for the truth behind her mother. However, the film lacks in actual celebration of Henrietta Lacks. This movie leaves out the primary focus of the story, Henrietta Lacks. To concentrate on the narrative of Skloot’s journey to write the book and her relationship with Deborah King was shameful. This oversight is a missed opportunity to bring Henrietta’s to the forefront of science history. The HBO adaptation fails to teach the story of the famous cell line to a broader population.
Skloot’s book does highlight the struggles of the Lacks family, who have not made a dime from their mother’s cells. A bitter reality when juxtaposed with the fact that they all suffer from severe health conditions. In fact, the family has no idea about HeLa cells and how famous they are until researchers show up to draw blood from the family for cell line contamination studies. Even then, they are misled and kept in the dark about their mother’s fame.
It’s hard not to feel rage and anger towards the doctors and researchers taking advantage and garnering acclaim off a woman who came to seek help from them from a life-threatening illness. The film draws you into the struggle, pain, and confusion Deborah felt but leaves out the pain, racism, and confusion Henrietta experienced when seeking treatment The adaptation focused on describing Deborah’s journey for the truth and emphasized Skloot’s struggles in getting Deborah and the Lacks family to talk to her. The one thing you get a real sense of is the confusion the family had in regards to HeLa cells.  Rebecca discovers this as she gets closer to Deborah and the family.
When I read the book, I felt such intense feelings as I discovered the full story, and the film stirs up the same emotions, but without the strength and force, I felt initially. This movie does touch upon aspects of Henrietta’s life, such as how well-loved she was in her community and amongst her family, but leaves the viewer with a superficial understanding of who she was and what the real story was.

This film doesn’t shy away from the racism deeply embedded in this story as well as the difficulty Rebecca Skloot had in getting her book published while including the family’s legacy, as several scenes show her at odds with publishers and editors who reject her desire to tell a story that goes beyond the lab.

Despite the good intentions of the film it has not been without criticism, even from within the family Lawrence Lacks is unhappy with the movie, accusing HBO of exploiting his mother’s memory.
Skloot devoted ten years to working on her book, which was published in 2010 and some think the film should have focused more on Skloot and her achievements in addition to Henrietta’s story. I believe this is bullshit. Skloot herself was initially hesitant to write herself into the original book. Why should a film that seeks to bring Henrietta and her family’s plight to the public do anything but focus on those aspects of the story? Why should a black woman continue to be passed over and marginalized in her own story?
The legacy of HeLa cells is filled with pain, but most people focus on the scientific breakthroughs and give no thought to the family. Despite the importance of the HeLa cells, many people don’t know about Henrietta Lacks. Many researchers give no thought to the individual behind the cells that power their research. This is poignantly highlighted by this film when researchers take blood from the Lacks family to see if cell lines were contaminated with HeLa cells and avoid discussion with the family about what their intentions are.
As a researcher, the most impactful scene that this film beautifully brought to life was Deborah and Zakariyya finally getting to visit a lab and see their mother’s cells and holding a vial of their mother. To them, you can tell it was a necessary reunion with their mom, whom they loved so much. The scene with Deborah and Zakariyya standing in front of a projector with their mother’s cells projected onto their whole bodies strikes you when you realize that after all the years searching, this is what Deborah truly wanted.
To understand, to know, to see, and to be close to her mother.
This could and should have been a mini-series. 1 1/2 hours is just not enough time to do justice to Henrietta’s legacy. While the book brought to light the injustices, both ethical and social, suffered by Henrietta, this film left that out to tell a thinly layered story of how the history of the HeLa cell line was swept under the rug and how the Lacks family was kept in the dark.
I was excited about the adaptation, but after watching this film, I was left feeling empty and enraged. Even the closing scene of the movie focused on Skloot’s tears over the loss of Deborah, glossing over the end of Deborah’s life.
If you want to learn the truth behind the HeLa story and understand Henrietta’s life and journey dealing with cervical cancer, do yourself a favor and read the book. Hopefully, this film will pique the curiosity of its viewers to pick up ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.” It is a book everyone should have on their shelves, and there’s still plenty to gain from it especially after having watched the movie.

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