Newsweek

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

Newsweek6 min readScience
Republicans Slowly Warm to Climate Change
Polls show a partisan divide on climate change, but Democrats and Republicans have more in common on the issue than they might think.
Newsweek4 min readTech
Generation Z Grew Up Reading About Dystopias Like This
The parallels between government and the themes of popular dystopian novels are striking. Every day, kids are being killed on the streets, in their schools, and at the movies.
Newsweek3 min read
Why Controlled Burns Could Save Forests, And Lives
Wildfires in British Columbia and California have blanketed the northwest U.S. in smoke, creating some of the most unhealthy air quality in the country.