In the first moments of the HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you learn about the miraculous clump of cells that changed medical science forever before really learning about the person who made and was killed by them. In 1951, a 31-year-old African American woman named Henrietta Lacks learned she was dying of cervical cancer. She sought treatment from a then-segregated Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, where a piece of her tumor was removed without her knowledge for ongoing research. To their delight, doctors found that Lacks’s cells could do something they’d never seen before: They could survive and reproduce in a laboratory indefinitely. This immortal cell line, dubbed “HeLa” (for Henrietta Lacks), allowed scientists to carry out experiments they couldn’t perform on a living person, effectively leading to the birth of the biomedical industry.
The story of Lacks, her cells, and her family came to mainstream recognition when the writer Rebecca Skloot published her runaway bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010. The book documents Skloot’s efforts to track down Lacks’s family to learn more about the woman herself, whose identity had been obscured for decades while companies profited off her cells. Now, the HBO film adaptation, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Oprah Winfrey, aims to bring that story to an even wider audience by focusing on the more personal, and less scientific, elements of Skloot’s book.