Blu-ray Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the captivating story of the source of the HeLa line of endlessly regenerating cells that have factored in, the film tells us, just about every major disease treatment breakthrough since 1951. The "He" is short for Henrietta, the "La" for Lacks. Though misidentified for years as being sourced from a "Helen Lane," it was in fact Henrietta Lacks—an African-American woman who passed away from cancer at age 31—whose cells were harvested in what is described as a "medical miracle." Unlike all human cancer cells up to that point, Ms. Lacks' cells did not die after a mere few days. They persevered and regenerated, becoming "immortal." They've been researched and tested over the decades and played a role in the creation of the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, HIV treatment, gene mapping, and a vast array of other areas of medical science.

However HBO's feature film adaptation of journalist Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction bestseller of the same name is no "disease of the week" movie. In fact, besides a handful of golden-toned flashbacks, we don't see Henrietta's story unfold (Ms. Lacks is gracefully portrayed by RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry in said flashbacks). The film drops us in 1999, as Skloot (Rose Byrne) begins research her book. It takes some real convincing to obtain consent from Henrietta's daughter, Deborah (Oprah Winfrey). Consent is a key issue explored throughout The Immortal Life, since Henrietta Lacks was not made aware that tissue samples were being collected for research—and eventually commercial usage. She passed away completely unaware that such work was commencing. It was decades before surviving family members were informed. To date, millions of dollars in revenue have been generated by the commercialized uses of the HeLa cell line. The Lacks family was never compensated.

As written and directed by George C. Wolfe, The Immortal Life begins as a raw nerve of a story. Rebecca has little idea just what can of worms she's opened as she meets the various members of the Lacks family, all of whom have decades of bottled-up frustrations over the way Henrietta's legacy has been handled. Their knowledge of the HeLa cells continued usage and reproduction have taken on a symbolic, almost supernatural relevance for them. Wolfe charts the confusion that naturally haunts the laypeople Lacks, with Deborah going so far as to express concerns that her mother has actually been cloned somewhere. There's also the issue of the family's recurring trust issues surrounding Rebecca and her efforts to tell their story. Though Skloot has been racking up expense after expense without backing, the Lacks have understandably been left wary by vulturous opportunists who've meddled in their business over the years. 
 
rsz_immortal_life_of_henrietta_lacks_bd.png As Henrietta, Oprah Winfrey delivers a staggering performance—how she was overlooked for an Emmy is anybody's guess. Walking with the assistance of a cane, Winfrey de-glams (as she has before,of course, in The Color Purple, Beloved, and others) without a thought of vanity. Her portrayal of Henrietta is that of a women eternally distraught. One moment she's possessed of a seemingly divine grace as she philosophizes about her mother's immortal presence, the next she's a raving madwoman spouting wild conspiracy theories, the next she's an inconsolable torrent of tears as she discovers long untold truths about her long-deceased sister (who was institutionalized as a teen at what was then called the Hospital for the Negro Insane). Winfrey delivers amazing work that must be seen.

As scene-stealing as Winfrey is, Rose Byrne turns in an equally authentic performance as the initially in-over-her-head science journalist. Byrne conveys a precise mixture of earnest good intentions and utter bewilderment as she tries to adjust to the often bizarre behavior exhibited within the Lacks family. It's a largely reactionary role, and therefore inherently less showy. But Byrne allows Rebecca's frustrations with Deborah's trust issues to come to a head, eventually showing the journalist as a force in her own right. Supporting turns are all excellent as well, particularly Reg E. Cathey as Deborah's troubled brother Zakariyya.

If The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks begins to run out of narrative steam, it's because Ms. Lacks' story—and by extension the story of the entire Lacks family—is too big to squeeze into a conventional three-act, 90-minute structure. Hopefully the movie brings wider awareness to the remarkable story. It's a jaw-dropping story and hopefully it'll also inspire people to pick up Skloot's book, too (which, an end credits title card tells us, spent six years on the bestseller list).

Despite the based-in-fact nature of the film, there isn't much additional background provided in HBO Home Entertainment's Blu-ray bonus materials. There's a pair of very short featurettes—"Family Featurette" and "Filming in Georgia"—that presumably aired on the premium cable network as a means of promoting the film.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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