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‘Henrietta Lacks’ review: Oprah and all-star cast shine in emotional drama

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Oprah Winfrey stars in the HBO movie, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," airing April 22. (Credit: HBO)

THE TV MOVIE “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. ON HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Just before Henrietta Lacks’ death from cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31, cells from her tumor were “harvested” by a doctor. Those cells turned out to be “immortal” — that is, they replicated endlessly (and still do), yielding a vast number of medical breakthroughs (including the polio vaccine). In the late ’00s, a freelance journalist, Rebecca Skloot (played by Rose Byrne), set out to write a book on Lacks, but initially met fierce resistance from family members like daughter Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), who figured Skloot was trying to profit off them (as others had).

This adaptation of the book — directed by George C. Wolfe from a screenplay he wrote with Peter Landesman and Alexander Woo — has an all-star cast, which also includes Rocky Carroll, Courtney B. Vance, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Leslie Uggams and “Hamilton’s” Renée Elise Goldsberry (who plays Henrietta Lacks).

MY SAY An effective tear-jerker is like a summer storm. First, there’s the hint of rain, followed by a distant rumble. Clouds gather, winds pick up, the lightning cracks, and then . . . well, then come the tears. “Henrietta Lacks” is an effective tear-jerker.

This storm mostly has all the right moves in all the right places. There are a pair of world-class actors in the leading roles, surrounded by other world-class actors — all working off Wolfe’s script. What could go wrong? Pretty much nothing does.

“Henrietta” is not about cells, or biology. It’s not about racial injustice or the racial divide, either, or the predations of the medical research establishment on the poor or vulnerable. All of these elements more or less shadow the story but they mostly keep their distance. Also keep in mind, this is an Oprah project, and she’s never been about guilt-tripping anyway. Oprah’s a lover, not a hater, and that love is evident here, notably in a deeply moving performance that seeks to honor two people, Lacks and her daughter, who died in 2009.

To get at what the movie is really about, go to the word “immortal” in the title. Lacks’ world-famous cells are of course “immortal,” although the film covers that story in just under a minute, during the opening credits. Instead, “immortal” here is about a void — Henrietta’s — and how those famous cells prevented her children from filling it. Winfrey’s Deborah alternates between rage and paranoia. “You gotta promise me you ain’t gonna lie and you ain’t gonna cheat nothing from me,” she tells Skloot, when establishing ground rules for their writer-source relationship.

As a fish out of water, Byrne’s Skloot is baffled by the Lacks’ fury and the Southern culture they sprang from — the children of poor, black dirt farmers who grasp their Bibles and look to Jesus for guidance. Like any good reporter, she eventually learns by perseverance and osmosis. Watching Deborah and her cousin Cliff (John Beasley) kneel over their mother’s unmarked grave in Clover, Virginia, another meaning of “immortal” thus occurs to her — a bond that death can’t break.

Yet even with the artistry of all the performances, and the considerable stagecraft, “Henrietta” locates the emotional payoff — that summer storm — in the usual place: The human heart. It’s about someone who lost her mother as a child, then spent the rest of her life trying to fill in the blank. How would her life had been different had she lived? But in an immediately obvious sense, “Henrietta Lacks” is for anyone else who suffered the same loss, then spent a lifetime trying to answer the unanswerable.

A famous daytime TV talk show host given to pithy quotes once advised, “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” With this movie as evidence, it doesn’t only sound pithy but profound.

BOTTOM LINE A beautiful, moving film, and Oprah (as usual) brings it.


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