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Blu-ray Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

September 26, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) is a science journalist who becomes fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a Baltimore woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, and had her cells harvested while she was being treated at Johns Hopkins.  Known as Hela, her cells were used for groundbreaking biomedical research, helping pave the way for the polio vaccine, AIDS medication and cancer treatments.

But Henrietta’s cells were taken without her permission, something that her children still struggle to accept.  First reaching out to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), Rebecca gets to know her family, determined to tell the story of the woman that few people knew behind the cells that had become famous.

Based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book of the same name, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an engaging and well acted HBO production that does a fine job of recounting this true story that raises some fascinating ethical questions.  The film’s emotional arc comes from watching Henrietta’s children come to realize how many millions of people have been helped by their mother’s cells, while also coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t consent to having her cells used for research, and their family was never financially compensated.

The story itself is by turns devastating, infuriating and inspiring, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is carried by good performances from its cast.  Rose Byrne does fine work here, flexing more of her dramatic muscle after making a name for herself in many comedies.  But the standout of the film is Oprah Winfrey, who commands the screen, giving a phenomenal performance as a woman determined to bring her late mother’s legacy to light, while also struggling with mental breakdowns.  The instantly notable jazz score by Brantford Marsalis is another high point of the film.

The narrative can feel a bit rushed at times, relying on a few too many flashbacks, and the film does have a bit of that limited “Made for TV” look.  But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks more than makes up for this by the purely compelling nature of the story it is telling.  This is an emotionally affecting drama that recounts a fascinating true story wrought with moral dilemmas, and it provides a powerful reminder that Oprah Winfrey is the real deal in terms of acting.

The Blu-ray also includes the two short bonuses Family Featurette and Filming in Georgia.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an HBO release.  It’s 92 minutes and rated 14A.

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