There are two cardinal sins for biographical dramas. The first is choosing an unsuitable audience avatar. This is especially acute in Hollywood’s determination to use white characters as the focal point for stories involving minorities. The second is for the film to turn into a vanity project for the lead actor.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks suffers from both. Rose Byrne plays Rebecca Skloot, a white struggling author who wants to trace the full arc of Lack’s life, from the woman herself, her family, and the impact of her research. She finds herself traveling to deepest-darkest Baltimore to try and piece all of it together.
Henrietta Lacks may well be one of the most consequential human beings to ever live. Specimens of her cervical cancer continue to live and multiply decades after her death. Her “Hela” cells have been instrumental in the development of vaccines for polio, and tuberculosis. It may yet help end the scourge of cancer.
The title promises something of a deep dive into this legacy but is more concerned with the writing of the source material. All we learn of the real Henrietta Lacks are merely platitudes. A beautiful woman, an “angel”, a wonderful cook, popular in the community, a warm maternal presence. The real person behind all this is never presented, and ultimately is reduced to a bit player in her own life’s story.
Immortal Life instead focuses much more on the family she left behind, particularly on two of the children that suffered the most from her absence. The oldest son, Zachariah (Reg E. Cathey) and the youngest daughter Deborah (Oprah Winfrey) both carry deep emotional scars and damaged psyches. It takes an especially deft actor to play broad extremes in a single character, and unfortunately neither Winfrey or Casey ground themselves sufficiently.
Winfrey is the star here, and Deborah drives much of the plot. It's an ill-fitting choice. Foremost we find that Deborah is the only living Lack’s child to not know her mother. Her mental state was so frail as to greatly complicate every portion of Rebecca’s fact finding mission. The highlights of her eccentricities are truly groan worthy and play up stereotypes all their own.
The rest of Lack’s children hardly get as much attention. From what we do see, they are grounded people of simple means. The plot mostly uses them as a means to frighten Rebecca and her descent into the ghettos of Baltimore. One introductory sequence sees one of the brothers dropping Rebecca alone on a rundown stretch of rowhomes on the bad side of town. It's an odd way to try to build sympathy with the larger family.
Much of Immortal Life was shot on the current campus of John Hopkins Hospital. The institution seems eager to appear as something of an act of contrition. The underlying moral dilemma behind Hela cells was of course that neither Lacks nor her family consented to their eventual use. There’s any number of reasons why a person would decline to take part in medical research whether for religious, or moral concerns. We’ll never know if Lacks would’ve approved of the research done on her cells.
Immortal Life paints the primary concern of Lack’s surviving family as one of compensation. The medical advancements derived from Hela cells are certainly worth millions of dollars, some of which flows back to Hopkins. None of this reached Lack’s family whom Immortal Life paints as living at or near poverty.
There are other sins to account for however. African American communities are often distrustful of hospitals. Stories of illicit medical research performed on poorer blacks without consent are legion. Immortal Life illustrates one such incident targeted directly at the Lacks family. After Hela cells breached their containment and spread to other cultures stored at Hopkins, doctors collected blood from the Lacks family to help determine the extent of the cross contamination. At this point the family still wasn’t aware of how their mother’s cells were being used and the doctors had no intention to tell them. Instead they fabricated a story about influenza testing and never followed up after drawing samples.
Immortal Life makes painfully clear that such an action drew out of a deep seated racism that’s a bit chilling to watch.
Despite allowing themselves to get muddied a bit, I left with the impression that Hopkins felt the enormity of their achievement outweighed the insensitivities of their alumni. To them admitting their callousness was the price to pay to celebrate their accomplishments. The film certainly makes clear that no compensation has yet to reach the Lacks family. Although I understand at this point they are at least consulted when new uses for Hela cells are raised.
One of the final sequences did work for me. Immortal Life posits that Henrietta truly never died. Her cells continue to live and propagate to this day. They’ve never stopped evolving and changing yet still bear the genetic markers of Lacks.
A Hopkins researcher shows the Lacks family vials of living cells, directly descended from their mother. The whole scene reminded me of the reveal of Akira from that classic Anime.