TV Movie Review: 'The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks'

Apr 20, 2017
Originally published on April 20, 2017 7:31 am
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An HBO film out this weekend works to expose a historic injustice. The movie is based on a bestselling book, "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks." It's a true story in which the title character is played by Oprah Winfrey in her first leading role in a TV movie since the 1990s. Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: HBO's "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks" begins with a brilliant montage showing the birth of the biomedical industry. Researchers in the 1950s took cancer cells from a young black woman, which led to the development of drugs for polio, leukemia and many other illnesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What makes this sample so unique is that this is the first cell line we have discovered in over 30 years of trying that can survive and reproduce indefinitely.

DEGGANS: But Lacks's family wasn't told back then that the cells were taken or compensated for them. Lacks's daughter Deborah, played in the film by Oprah Winfrey, was particularly wounded by the secrecy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Deborah Lacks) For years, it seemed like a dream, not knowing what was going on, not knowing who to go to for understanding - didn't even know how to talk about it.

DEGGANS: Deborah Lacks is a role that Winfrey seems destined to play. She was a passionate, righteous woman struggling against racism and a tangled family history to learn more about the mother who died when she was a child. So when journalist Rebecca Skloot calls hoping to write a book about Henrietta, Deborah is jubilant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

WINFREY: (As Deborah Lacks) Hallelujah. Old folks, they didn't talk about nobody wasn't alive. So my whole life, I grew up not knowing one thing, not even the littlest things, like, what was her favorite color, or what happened to her clothes? You better get yourself ready because this story is crazy enough for three books.

ROSE BYRNE: (As Rebecca Skloot) I'm ready. I'm ready.

DEGGANS: Winfrey's down-to-earth charm helps humanize Deborah, who had serious mood swings. The movie's largely told from the journalist's point of view. And the real-life Skloot told me last week that Deborah, who died in 2009, wanted Winfrey to play her in any movie.

REBECCA SKLOOT: She always said, you know, this book is going to come out. It's going to be a bestseller. Oprah's going to make a movie, and she's going to play me. Like, she was just sure of it. And I just felt the story would be safe with her.

DEGGANS: Skloot and Deborah Lacks spent years working on the book. They had to pull information from an indifferent, white-dominated medical establishment, which included people who took blood from the Lacks family for further research, letting them believe they were testing them for cancer. In the film, Skloot, played by actress Rose Byrne, confronts a doctor who was involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

BYRNE: (As Rebecca Skloot) Were you aware that the Lackses thought that you were testing them for cancer?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I suspect there was no effort to explain anything in great detail. It's not like those people would have understood anyway.

DEGGANS: Fans of the book will notice there isn't as much science in the movie. Director George C. Wolfe said he chose to make the film's story more personal.

GEORGE C. WOLFE: The film needed to be about Deborah. Not all of us have cells that have transformed modern medicine, but we all want to know our parents more.

DEGGANS: The movie's impending debut has also exposed tensions among some in the Lacks family. Henrietta's oldest child, Lawrence Lacks, and his son, Ron, criticized both the book and the film publicly last month. They've now scaled back their comments, saying they're more concerned about the accuracy of the book. Skloot and her publisher have stood by the book's accuracy. HBO, in a statement, said filmmakers worked with five other Lacks family members as paid consultants.

In the end, HBO's "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks" is uneven. It has deeply affecting moments, but they don't quite knit together into a consistently powerful film. But it does succeed by showcasing Winfrey in one of her best roles yet, playing a complicated woman willing to face down any obstacle to bring her mother's truth to the world. I'm Eric Deggans.

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