No lack of emo­tion

‘The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks’ sleuths the story of a woman whose can­cer cells were cul­ti­vated

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY HANK STUEVER

HBO’s “Hen­ri­etta Lacks” film uses fam­ily to tell tale of science.

HBO’s film adap­ta­tion of jour­nal­ist Re­becca Sk­loot’s best-sell­ing book “The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks” is a fine if some­what for­mu­laic les­son in how to pare a very com­pli­cated and of­ten tech­ni­cal story down to its emo­tional essence. It also sends a clear mes­sage to those who fall back on science to an­swer any ques­tion or moral qualm, even when it comes to mat­ters of the soul. We may be only a col­lec­tion of cells, but be­yond the mi­cro­scope, the mys­tery of life is more elu­sive.

Or some­thing like that. The film (air­ing Sat­ur­day) stars Rose Byrne as Re­becca, a free­lance science writer de­ter­mined to learn more about the de­ceased, anony­mous woman whose can­cer cells, ex­tracted with­out con­sent in 1951 at Bal­ti­more’s Johns Hopkins Hospi­tal, be­came a sci­en­tific le­gend. Eas­ily re­pro­duced, the “HeLa” cells played a vi­tal role in decades of med­i­cal break­throughs, in­clud­ing the po­lio vac­cine. Trac­ing their ori­gin to Hen­ri­etta Lacks is easy enough, Re­becca dis­cov­ers (it was more or less an open se­cret in sci­en­tific cir­cles), but find­ing out more about Lacks’s life sends her on a dif­fi­cult jour­ney that will take more than a decade to fin­ish.

Her first ob­sta­cle is the Lacks fam­ily it­self — in­clud­ing Hen­ri­etta’s chil­dren, whose dis­trust and anger about the use of their mother’s cells has sim­mered for years. The next-to-youngest, a daugh­ter named Deb­o­rah (Oprah Win­frey), doubts Re­becca’s sin­cer­ity and re­peat­edly ac­cuses her of try­ing to profit off her mother’s story. As jour­nal­ist and source, they reach an un­easy ac­cord, with Deb­o­rah ex­tract­ing a prom­ise from Re­becca: “You ain’t gonna lie and you ain’t gonna keep noth­ing from me.”

The film — shep­herded by Win­frey and di­rected by Ge­orge C. Wolfe (“Lack­awanna Blues”) from a screen­play by Wolfe, Peter Lan­des­man and Alexan­der Woo — briskly skims over the co­pi­ous amounts of med­i­cal sleuthing re­quired to write the book, fa­vor­ing the fam­ily nar­ra­tive that be­gins and ends in the nearly nonex­is­tent town of Clover, Va., where Hen­ri­etta grew up. Through the rec­ol­lec­tions of older rel­a­tives, Deb-

orah and Re­becca learn more about Hen­ri­etta’s past and her strug­gles.

As a par­al­lel to the in­dif­fer­ence with which Hopkins helped it­self to her mother’s cells, Deb­o­rah is ob­sessed with track­ing down the records of an older sis­ter who was in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized. The film suc­cess­fully con­veys the tri­umph the women feel when they turn up scraps of in­for­ma­tion long thought to be lost; in a qui­eter way, “The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks” is an­other one of those heroic jour­nal­ism movies — a les­son in stick­ing with a story long past the point that others would sen­si­bly give up.

As far back as her Oscar-nom­i­nated film de­but in 1985’s “The Color Pur­ple,” Win­frey has been a re­luc­tant ac­tress, ap­pear­ing here and there in projects that ap­pealed to her, some­times just to play a cameo ver­sion of her me­dia­mag­nate self. Her per­for­mance here as Deb­o­rah is a re­minder of just how pow­er­fully she can in­habit a char­ac­ter, even a dif­fi­cult one. She em­pa­thet­i­cally shows us Deb­o­rah’s life­long sense of vi­o­la­tion, com­bined with her ex­plo­sive tem­per and bouts of anx­i­ety. It’s proof pos­i­tive that Win­frey should make time in her sched­ule to take more act­ing jobs. (Un­less she wants to run for pres­i­dent, which sounds a lot more plau­si­ble than it used to.)

“The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks” is beau­ti­fully shot, eco- nom­i­cally told (if any­thing it feels too rushed) and re­spect­ful to the le­gacy of the HeLa cells. At its heart, how­ever, is a cen­tral mis­un­der­stand­ing. Doc­tors in the 1950s were con­cerned only with har­vest­ing the can­cer cells — a self­ishly ba­nal act — while Deb­o­rah and her fam­ily strug­gle through­out the story to grasp the ba­sic science. When they hear that their mother’s can­cer cells have been in­jected into mon­keys and mice or shot into space, they think that it’s lit­er­ally her, that she can feel her cells in­ter­act­ing with the AIDS virus and other dis­eases.

Re­becca fi­nally re­al­izes the value in this line of mag­i­cal think­ing and rather than snuff Hen­ri­etta out of this process with clin­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions, she gives the Lacks fam­ily the free­dom to lend a spiritual as­pect to their mother’s count­less bless­ings to mod­ern medicine.

Though it delves deeply into the Lack­ses’ pain, the film clearly in­tends to smooth over some rougher edges, per­haps in search of a peace­ful end­ing. The real Deb­o­rah Lacks died in 2009, months be­fore the book was re­leased; the Lacks fam­ily con­tin­ues to bicker over a sense of own­er­ship to their mother’s le­gacy. But Hen­ri­etta’s gift lives on, stolen or bor­rowed or how­ever you want to per­ceive it — lost and then found. The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks (95 min­utes) airs Sat­ur­day at 8 p.m. on HBO, with en­cores.

QUANTRELL COL­BERT/HBO

In HBO’s “The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks,” Oprah Win­frey, left, with Les­lie Uggams, re­minds view­ers of just how pow­er­fully she can in­habit a char­ac­ter.

QUANTRELL COL­BERT/HBO

Oprah Win­frey, left, and Rose Byrne star in “The Im­mor­tal Life of Hen­ri­etta Lacks,” which is beau­ti­fully shot and eco­nom­i­cally told.

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