Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


I think Oprah Winfrey really wanted to make a good film about this incredible story, but somehow she ended up making it mostly about herself. It’s far too complicated and technical for me to detail it all here, but the short version is that cancer cells taken from Ms. Lacks in 1951 and cultured in a lab are still in use today, and though various companies and institutes have made fortunes from her unique cells, her heirs have never gotten a penny. They didn’t even know about it until recently. The HeLa cell line has been central to many, many advances in cancer treatment and study. And the law says that things taken from your body don’t belong to you. Yet somehow, the people who take these parts can use them, sell them … oh, it’s a terrible story, and it’s not over.

I read the book and it’s a great read. But Oprah twisted it around and made it about the character she plays, Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, who is a difficult woman, to be sure, but not the weird person we see in this film. Oprah chews the scenery most of the time, and I guess that counts as a great performance to some people. But not me. Reviews were mixed. Mine is not. I thought it was pretty awful.