Oprah Stars in 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

In "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," Oprah Winfrey plays a daughter fighting to reclaim the mother that science hid from her.
Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks. Skloot is not only the book's author but also a central part of the story.
04_21_Oprah_01 Source: Quantrell D. Colbert/HBO

Toward the end of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the best-selling book and now an HBO movie, a woman stands in a science lab, holding in her hands a frozen vial. “She’s cold,” says Deborah Lacks, played by Oprah Winfrey. She says that because the vial contains cells directly descended from tissue taken from Deborah’s mother more than 50 years earlier. For Deborah, holding it is like holding her mother, who died when she was just 2. “You famous,” she says to the vial. “Just nobody knows it.”

Nobody knew it because nobody was told. Medical research has long followed the principle of anonymity. Tissue removed during surgery or other procedures can be examined, shared, discussed and put through all manner of poking and prodding without the original owner’s consent, as long as the identity is stripped from the sample. Even if the cells lead to lifesaving vaccines and medications, the person they were taken from never needs to be disclosed. That’s the law.

But in Immortal, that tissue, that bit of a woman’s body, is more than a research specimen. For a daughter desperate to know more about her long-deceased mother, holding frozen cells

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Newsweek

Newsweek5 min read
14 Nonfiction Books You'll Want to Read This Fall
From Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen's satirical Trump memoir to Ron Chernow's next biography.
Newsweek3 min read
What Suicidal Thoughts Look Like in the Brain
Marcel Just, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, tries to take pictures of human thoughts. He was giving a talk about the way concepts are physically represented in the brain, when his colleague, David Brent, a psychiatrist, asked him: Did
Newsweek2 min read
First Interstellar Species? Tardigrades Get the Nod
If you've dreamed of touching the stars, sit tight, because you are definitely not going to be the first living creature to explore space beyond our solar system. Instead, that title will go to two microscopic organisms that scientists have deemed ha