When the first preview for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came on mid-Big Little Lies binge, I was excited. This woman’s contributions to science are immeasurable, but not in the typical way. For those of you unfamiliar with Henrietta, let me introduce you. Her DNA, now known as “HeLa”, is responsible for thousands, if not millions, of scientific breakthroughs. You may be familiar with the polio vaccine, or gene mapping? Her DNA is to thank. However, until recent years, her name was erased from the history books.
Here’s the low-down on how this woman’s contributions to science came to be:
- In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer
- She was treated at Johns Hopkins, as it was the only hospital that treated black patients at the time
- During her treatment for her cancer, two samples were taken from Henrietta’s cervix without her permission or knowledge. One sample was of healthy tissue, and one was cancerous.
- These samples were then passed to a cancer researcher at the hospital
- Her cells were then found to be the first immortal cell line, meaning, unlike normal cells which eventually die off, Henrietta’s will continue replicating indefinitely
- These cells are still used in medical research today. There are nearly 11,000 patents involving them, and scientists have reproduced an estimated 20 tons of them.
- Her family had no knowledge of this use until 1975
One of the most heartbreaking parts of this story is that Henrietta died less than two months after being admitted to the hospital. It was even after her death, however, that researchers continued to use her body. During the time her body was stored for autopsy purposes, researchers took further samples of her DNA, as they had already observed the power in her cells. Still, no one informed the family. The film was based on Rebecca Scoot’s book of the same name which was on the bestseller list for over six years. It was the first time that Henrietta was more than just the block of cells known as HeLa, and was instead treated as a human being.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the most emotional film I have seen in recent memory. Told through the eyes of the author Rebecca Scoot (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), it brought life not only Henrietta, but also the real and current dehumanization that can occur in the name of science Most importantly, it ensured that we would Henrietta not only as HeLa, but as an amazing woman, mother, and human being.
The film opens on Rebecca pitching the idea of writing about Henrietta to a close family friend of the Lacks’. Rebecca explains how she first became enamored with Henrietta’s story after she witnessed her father’s unethical experiences during a scientific research trial. Her attempt to humanize “HeLa” is one of the main focal points of the film, as it follows her research for the book. She meets Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, who creates a network between Rebecca and the Lacks family.
The second focal point of the film is Deborah Lacks. During the course of the film you find yourself wanting to both shake and hug Deborah. We discover her life has been full of abuse and grief which have deeply impacted her psychologically and emotionally. Deborah was only 2 when her mother died, and as such knew very little about her. For her, the story of HeLa was a journey to meet her mother.
I found myself shaking with anger during multiple parts of the film. The cold, detached, and uncaring mannerisms of the doctor and scientists involved in this research reflect much of the scientific community’s views of HeLa. It was clear that Henrietta’s cells were nothing more than that: cells. When the researcher who knowingly took DNA material from both Henrietta and her family without their knowledge or consent excused himself by saying “Those people would never understand”, my blood boiled. It’s important to note that it was neither required, nor expected to receive consent from a person during that time, especially so if it was a person of color, but nevertheless basic respect for human life can be expected.
The casting for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was phenomenal: Oprah’s performance in the film is nothing short of extraordinary, and the film community is blessed by her presence in front of the camera once more. Renee Elise Goldsberry’s likeness to Henrietta is uncanny, and her spark and joy were nearly tangible. And finally, I cannot end without noting the incredible job Reg E. Cathey did with the role of Zakariyaa. He presented his paranoia in a way that the audience not only understood, but related to. We knew he had every right to fear the unknown, and understood his end goal had always been justice for his mother.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was educational, inspirational, and an important reminder of the humanity behind scientific advancement. I hope you will watch it, because Henrietta’s story has been largely untold until now. This story is human, it’s important, and it needs to be remembered.
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Shannon has a degree in Sociology and Women's Studies from the University of Northern Colorado, where she composed her award winning and nationally presented senior thesis titled "Behind the Shield and Under the Sheets: Sex and Sexuality in a Live Action Role Playing Game"
If this is not a statement of her nerdy feminism, what more could there be?
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