HBO Spotlight: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The last review of the HBO Spotlight, is fittingly an HBO Original. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the tragic and heartbreaking story of Henrietta Lacks (the woman who’s responsible for HELA cells, everlasting cells that can take any form and grow outside the human body) and her children who desperately want their mother’s story told honestly. It focuses on a medical writer turned freelancer, Rebecca Skloot, who becomes closely involved with the family, especially the unstable Deborah Lacks, who is mentally fragile and desperately wants to honor her mother’s humanity not just her benefits to the world of science.

The story of Henrietta runs parallel to the story of her children, often flashing back and forth between the past and the present. Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry plays Henrietta brilliantly in her moments of screen time. However, the star of this movie is Oprah Winfrey in her most honest and captivating role since The Color Purple. She is emotionally heartbreaking as she spirals from extreme paranoia and anxiety to normality and back rapidly throughout the film. Her brothers serve as her protectors, but the writer played by Rose Bryne, becomes very close with her as well as the rest of the family.

I will say, the ending especially involving Oprah’s character, Deborah, is so heartbreaking I teared up in the library while writing this. It was emotionally devastating.

The overall film is okay. There some moments that feel a little dragged out and some that seem misplaced, but overall it is a decent biopic. I wish we had more of Henrietta Lacks, her flashbacks simply don’t capture her story as much as other people talking about her constantly. I wish we could see some more of her life besides a few scattered scenes and an emotional sign off. Still, the highlight of the whole film is Oprah’s performance. It’s raw and unflinching and she doesn’t fear going as far as she needs to go to convey emotional honestly. It’s a truly heartbreaking performance.

Still, this is a very important story in American science. It highlights a lot of different problems in science including race and gender and how Henrietta has been pushed aside in history as her cells are still used this day to cure an unfathomable amount of diseases. As her cells live on, so should her story, and so I think the decision to adapt her life and the creation of her biography into film is an important decision.

Amy’s Recommendation: 7/10







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