The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Too much Oprah

I watched the new HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t much care for it. I very much liked the book, enough that I’ve made it assigned reading in some of my classes, but I wouldn’t use the movie in the same way. And, weirdly, what I consider a serious failing of the movie is considered a strength by other reviewers. Here’s Variety, for instance:

The HBO movie about this trio [Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Lacks] makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.)

See that last sentence? That covers in its entirety all of the science in the movie, completely. If you want to learn more about HeLa cells and their history and use in the laboratory, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, there are a few brief vignettes scattered here and there, but otherwise, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about the ethics (or lack thereof) of biomedical research, it’s alluded to, but otherwise, it’s not here. This is all about Oprah and her Emmy-deserving performance.

It’s not just me. Vulture, USA Today, The Ringer, LA Times, Time, and basically everyone who has reviewed it, says the same thing: Oprah was excellent, and she stole the show. I agree. But I think that’s a shame.

If you want to see a movie with some fine acting, with an impressive character study, with a singular character who sucks all the air out of the room when she’s on screen (which she is, most of the time), then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO is the show for you, enjoy it for what it is. If you want a richer, more complicated story of the intersection between science and culture and how it affects one larger family, then read the book…which, I notice, is out in a new edition with a new cover that replaces the photograph of Henrietta Lacks with a close-up of Oprah, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the movie.


  1. lotharloo says

    I looked up the trailer and it seems that yes, it is mostly about Oprah. What a shame. It could have been a good movie but I guess it ended up being typical Hollywood crap: watered down and over-dramatized.

  2. says

    Haven’t seen the movie, have skimmed the book. It is moving about the contrast between the poverty of the Lacks family and the large role HeLa cells played in biomedical research and biotech. (Too large, as my colleague Stan Gartler showed — they tended to contaminate other cell cultures).

    Does the movie suggest that the solution would be for the Lacks family to have received substantial royalties — while all their neighbors still suffered from racial discrimination, had horrible healthcare and a miserable social safety net?

  3. etchison says

    A question from a non-scientist: what is the danger of doing so much experimentation on what are, essentially, abnormal cells?

  4. says

    Why does the movie have to be a science and ethics lesson? Why can’t it be a drama about Oprah’s character? It is what it is. Just because you would have been interested in a different movie is not a legitimate criticism.

  5. bobmunck says

    That book was one of the first on my brand-new Kindle (with the keyboard), along with Look Me in the Eye, the Heinlein juveniles, all the Travis McGees, and a fistful of Vonnegut. It made me realize that the Era of Paper was Over.

    I had a similar but lesser reaction like yours to the movie Hidden Figures; the science wasn’t wrong, but it was secondary or tertiary to the movie. There’s a new mini-series on cable about Einstein, and the reviews make it sound like it has a similar problem. I suppose that we should be happy that the lay public is being reminded that science exists, does some important good in the world, and isn’t mostly a vast global conspiracy.

  6. says

    #5: Not much. I’d worry more if I were working with E. coli. Not much danger, but it is a concern that the research might be a bit misleading.

    #6: Of course it can be about Oprah’s character, and it was; I also thought she gave a very good performance. I also said it was a movie that had ” fine acting, with an impressive character study”, and recommended it if you want that movie. Clearly, that was not the movie I wanted. I had different expectations from having read the book and knowing something about the subject.

  7. unclefrogy says

    if the movie is taken as a point in the history of movies and “blacks in movies” it is certainly a stand out. I will also add that with the reputation of Hollywood getting science wrong and the general understanding of what science is and how it works it might be a good thing that they were light on the science part and not the usual horribly wrong.

    It is a pity there have not been more good roles that Oprah could have been cast in but that is another discussion .
    uncle frogy

  8. says

    She hasn’t been in the acting business for a while, concentrating on her talk show and production company. As far as I know that was her own choice. Maybe she’ll get back into it.

  9. cedrus says

    @etchison – cancer is a very diverse disease, so unless you have a diverse panel of cell lines, it’s very easy to convince yourself that you’re studying cancer when in fact you’re only studying one specific tumor line. This is particularly a concern for HeLa, since this line is off-the-charts aggressive, and really should not be taken as the “type specimen” for cancer. It’s mostly used these days for applications where you need a lot of biomass quickly, and the fine details don’t matter. Cancer research is more often done with recent patient biopsies (we’ve gotten better at growing those) or normal cells of the desired tissue type with defined mutations.