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HBO's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks pits a family legacy against the greater good

Oprah Winfrey and John Beasley in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The airy montage of 1950s history and medical science that opens HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks temporarily grinds to a halt over a seemingly inconsequential detail — its title character’s name.

Biologist George Gey (Reed Birney) has cultivated “HeLa” — the world’s first “eternal” line of cancer cells, which can live indefinitely outside the body and thus be used for medical testing. Now, he needs to provide the press with the name of the woman these miraculous cells came from. A moment before he discloses, Gey hesitates, and then he lies.

In this subtle flinch away from the truth, director George C. Wolfe’s fictionalized biography of Lacks — an adaptation of journalist Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling 2010 nonfiction memoir of the same name — encapsulates the conflict to come.

Gey’s lie — he says the cells belonged to a woman named “Helen Lane” — camouflages Lacks’s real identity, and allows the film’s opening montage to resume its cheerful unfolding, beneath a peppy retro jazz score by Branford Marsalis. The story then embarks on its nominal mission: to uncover Lacks’s history and give the immortal HeLa cell line she spawned their proper origin story.

Lacks was a black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; she never gave consent to the Johns Hopkins University researchers who harvested her cells for medical study. But the film spends little time on the medical procedures and ethical conflicts surrounding the legacy of her cells. Instead, it dramatizes the impact of HeLa on the lives of the people touched by her legacy — beginning with Rebecca Skloot’s attempt to overcome the Lacks family’s reluctance to let her into their lives.

Henrietta Lacks explores the impact of the medical research industry on individual lives

“There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t benefited from your cells,” Rebecca (Rose Byrne) tells Lacks’s daughter, Deborah (Oprah Winfrey) during an early attempt to convince Deborah to participate in the book she’s writing in the early 2000s. Rebecca is ultimately so successful that Deborah not only fully embraces the project, but urges Rebecca to put herself into her own book. “I’m not gonna be in it by myself,” she says. And so Rebecca serves as a window into the lives of Deborah and her family.

Deborah is battling a cadre of mental health issues including paranoia, possible schizophrenia, and trauma from abuse, yet beneath this fervid disquiet, Winfrey imbues her with fragile earnestness and dogged determination. Deborah welcomes Rebecca into her Baltimore community, and in recounting Henrietta’s story, her surviving family members ultimately give Rebecca a glimpse of post-war black identity in the rural mid-Atlantic.

Wolfe is a legendary stage director, best known for the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America. But Wolfe is also adept at framing stories that explore the relationship between American culture and black identity, from Savion Glover’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk to last year’s short-lived but phenomenal Shuffle Along. Wolfe is particularly superb at contextualizing individual lives within a broader social framework.

In Henrietta Lacks, the long history of the exploitation and dehumanization of black Americans by the medical profession looms over the narrative. Johns Hopkins is a lurking shadow that sends ripples of fear throughout Baltimore’s black community; Deborah’s brothers speak of urban legends regarding university researchers yanking black men off the streets to force their participation in the researchers’ medical studies.

When a con man entangled with the family dredges up information about Deborah’s childhood, she learns to her horror that her sister, who she knew had been sent to an asylum as a child, had died there alone at the age of 15. Later, given a disturbing photo of her sister shortly before her death, she learns that her sister was given a painful encephalography.

As Deborah’s siblings initially warned Rebecca she might, Deborah’s mental state steadily unravels over the course of their shared journey into the past. The revelations about her sister dying in an asylum send her into a spiral of confessions: She tells Rebecca that the outward-facing unity of the Lacks family itself is only a half truth, that she and her siblings faced extreme mental and physical abuse, including sexual abuse, at the hands of relatives after Henrietta’s death from cancer.

For Deborah, the immortality of HeLa is an ironic reminder of the grief she carries, not just for her mother, but for the childhood of love and warmth she and her siblings missed. In a climactic sequence, Deborah and her cousin (John Beasley) pray for God’s deliverance from pain in a revival-style tableau while a discomfited Rebecca watches. In the book, Skloot, who is not religious, describes this sequence as akin to an exorcism; as Wolfe films it, it mostly reads as though Rebecca has just never been to church.

The Lacks family clings to the idea of family as a unified front as a defense against exploitation

Though the film’s writing tends to make too much of Rebecca’s bafflement and culture shock as she peers into the lives of the Lacks family, Wolfe never frames the Lacks as sheer spectacle. Early on, an editor tells Rebecca that she needs to remove the family from her narrative about Lacks — they’re too messy. But Henrietta Lacks reminds us that medical research can’t be separated from the messy lives that research impacts.

Wolfe has always been deeply concerned with the question of who controls a narrative. Although Henrietta is barely onscreen — she’s played by Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry in scenes from the past — her family’s fight to wrest her narrative away from Johns Hopkins and other medical entities is compelling precisely because of the transformation that happens when they do, both through the book that Rebecca writes and the ways in which their own lives subsequently change. Johns Hopkins and subsequent medical parties were solely concerned with Henrietta’s afterlife. Her family cared primarily about her lived life.

But this obsession also allows Wolfe the chance to interrogate the cultural importance of family within the black community, and how family unity strengthens individuals in a context where their identities, bodies, and even their blood cells have historically been appropriated away from them without consent.

Ironically, the real-life Lacks family is currently facing a schism over how to proceed now that Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book and the HBO film have made many of them public figures. The same concerns that percolate throughout the film — ownership, consent, and fear of exploitation — are coming to a head in ways that reflect the very concerns that may have prompted Gey to lie about HeLa’s identity to begin with.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks debuts April 22 at 8 pm on HBO and HBO Go.

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