In 1999, a young freelance scientific writer named Rebecca Skloot set out to get the story behind how the “HeLa” cells — cells notorious for significant developments in medical research, like the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and cancer treatments — were stolen by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 from a young black woman with cervical cancer. After a decade of research and running around Maryland and Virginia with the determined daughter of who the “HeLa” cells belonged to, Rebecca published a nonfiction novel about the life of Henrietta Lacks and her “HeLa” cells that transformed the medical industry.
Now, HBO has teamed up with Alan Ball (True Blood) and Oprah Winfrey to bring an adaptation of the New York Times Best Selling novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the small screen in a hour-and-a-half TV film.
Oprah stars as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who was only two when her mother passed away from cancer. Deborah deals with several different ailments, requiring her to take tons of medication but perhaps the worst ailment she suffers is the gaping hole in her heart from losing her mother and her disabled sister, Elsie, at a very young age. Oprah delivers a performance so gut-wrenching and vulnerable, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she was very prevalent this coming awards’ season. It’s interesting to see Oprah in a piece that takes place in modern times in a role that, considering the poverty and hardships she endured growing up, could’ve easily been an alternate direction of her real life — perhaps the life Orpah (Oprah’s real name) might’ve had if she hadn’t found her way to a morning TV show called AM Chicago.
Rose Byrne as freelance scientific journalist and author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, does a fantastic job of keeping up with Oprah’s powerful performance, though she never really steals the light, and I mean that as a compliment — Rebecca’s purpose is to tell the story, not star in it. Rose captures Rebecca’s peppiness with the help of a friendly smile and subtle twitches as she talks — a perfect counterbalance to the live-wire of Deborah, who can go from having a nice moment of discovery with Rebecca to literally choking her against a wall. Joining Rose and Oprah on their search for truth is a stellar cast, particularly Renèe Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta, Reg E. Cathey as one of Deborah’s brothers Zakariyya Lacks, and Courtney B. Vance as Sir Lord Keenan Kester Coefield.
The journey of Rebecca and Deborah discovering what really happened to Henrietta is, of course, the main focus of the story, but more interesting is the racial undertone of how black people were and are treated. Henrietta was treated for her cervical cancer in the “colored” section of Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s, surrounded by white doctors who only saw her as a toolbox in which they could take what they needed to conduct experiments and medical research. Without her or her family’s permission, those doctors stole cells from Henrietta’s body and use it to make significant medical advancements that have, in turn, saved thousands of lives. Under the nickname “HeLa”, Henrietta was never given the proper praise and remembrance she deserved; when asked who the “donor” was, the doctor blurted out the name “Helen Lane”, which has a rather white ring to it for that time period.
How ironic and sadly poetic is it that a black woman, who wasn’t allowed to enjoy the same restaurants or water fountains or transportation as the white people her cells saved.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8pm ET on HBO.