Medical research has come a long way since the 1950s due in large part to the propagation of the first immortal human cell line by a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Deemed “immortal” because they could continue to grow indefinitely, these cells became profoundly beneficial to the future of scientific advancements.
For the vast public, little was known about the origins of the “HeLa” cell line as the identity of the woman behind the cells was kept a secret. She had after all no knowledge of her cells being harvested.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks.
A 31-year-old black woman from Turners Station, Md., Lacks was diagnosed and later died in 1951 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. She was survived by five children, one of whom – Deborah Lacks (played by Oprah Winfrey) – is at the center of director George C. Wolfe’s film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which airs on HBO Saturday (April 22).
As the film opens the following words appear across the screen: “For decades, scientists had been collecting tissue samples from patients without consent, searching for cells that could live outside the human body. In 1951, a woman entered a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland and everything changed.”
Over the course of the film, viewers will follow Deborah Lacks – who died in 2009 – on her quest to discover more information about the mother she never got to know (she was two-years-old when her mother died) and the legacy she left behind.
Also central to this story is author Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) who, with assistance from Deborah Lacks, conducts research and interviews with family members and friends in an effort to uncover the truth behind “HeLa” for her 2010 book. That book, a New York Times best-seller, is a testament to the power of scientific literature. It has been used in college courses throughout the country and sheds a much-needed light on Henrietta Lacks’ story.
Lacks’ cells were remarkable, aiding scientists in a wide range of medical developments including the polio vaccine, HIV research, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization, but the fact that neither Lacks nor her family knew her cells were being collected for research stirs up questions about medical ethics and the politics of race and class.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Winfrey as Deborah Lacks recalls painful experiences from her past that she felt might not have happened had her mother been alive. In her portrayal, Winfrey excels at expressing the overwhelming sense of yearning any child might feel having never known their mother. I enjoyed seeing this titan of media and film showing off her stellar acting chops again. For her last film role, she played civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper in Ava DuVernay’s critically-acclaimed 2014 film, Selma.
Given that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks only features a few brief flashbacks of the film’s subject (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), viewers might feel as though they’re missing out on the full extent of the story or a chance to learn more about Lacks’ life before the diagnosis.
Less than a year ago, Hidden Figures introduced audiences to mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, three black women whose contributions to N.A.S.A.’s first space explorations went widely unacknowledged for decades. And here we have another film that shines a spotlight on the contributions of a black woman. I want us to celebrate the fact that Lacks’ story is potentially being presented to a more widespread audience as we all have a lot to thank her for considering what her cells have meant for modern medicine.
Not only should viewers tune into the film, but they should feel encouraged to read Skloot’s book and seek out more information about a woman whose incredible legacy was kept a secret for far too long. It’s a story they may have not known about before, but won’t soon forget.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks airs on HBO on Saturday (April 22) at 8 p.m. EST.