"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a movie that premiered Saturday (April 22) on HBO, touched off a public conversation about racism in the biomedical field and the heated legacy of its titular character’s cells over the weekend.
Based on the book of the same name, the film follows Lacks’ daughter Deborah (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) and her relationship with book author and journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne, "Neighbors") as they uncover the truth behind Henrietta’s story.
The movie also features Renée Elise Goldsberry ("The Good Wife") in flashback scenes as Henrietta, who died of cervical cancer in 1951 while being treated at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cells were sampled without her consent and developed by Johns Hopkins researchers into the first "immortal cell line"—cells that could be reproduced outside the human body for medical research. Known as the HeLa cells, they continue to be used by researchers across the world and contributed to developments in the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization and other medical breakthroughs—but Lacks’ surviving relatives have received no financial restitution for her contribution.
Lacks’ case sparked conversations about the ethics of research using a Black woman’s body without her knowledge or her family’s consent, particularly given the health sector’s benefit from those cells at a time when people of color could not expect doctors to treat them with the same standard as White patients. That debate also includes discussion surrounding Skloot’s book and the new movie, with some of Lacks’ family involved in their creation and others accusing Skloot and HBO of profiteering.
To put these issues into context, we offer the following five articles and books to help understand why Lacks’ story and its depiction matter today:
- This chronicle of the Lacks family’s saga from The Root, featuring quotes from Henrietta’s son Lawrence and his own son Ron, both of whom accuse the book and movie of portraying the family poorly (Lawrence’s brothers David Lacks Jr. and Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, conversely, worked as film consultants)
- A Vox primer on the debates surrounding informed consent for medical research, which breaks down why some scientists feel obtaining familial confirmation is harder in practice than in principle, as well as other medical professionals’ disagreements with such arguments
- The Baltimore Sun‘s report with statements from Lawrence, Ron and other Lacks family members both criticizing and standing by the book and film, as well as the National Institutes of Health’s 2013 decision requiring scientists to get the agency’s permission to use Henrietta’s genetic blueprint
- "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present," science writer Harriet A. Washington’s 2008 book on historical ethical abuse and racism by the medical establishment against Black communities
- Skloot’ book, which inspired the HBO movie
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is now available for streaming via HBO Go.