This week on Blu-ray from director George C. Wolfe and HBO Home Entertainment is an Original Film that tells the story of cells from “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) is a young woman on a mission, to discover the story of Henrietta Lacks (Renee Goldsberry). An African-American woman who became the medical breakthrough as the first human cell line in the 1950’s.
She reaches out to Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) and immediately stonewalled and told the men in the family would have to agree. Rebecca meets with several members including Sonny (Rocky Carroll), Lawrence (John Thompson), Day (Roger Robinson) and Barbara (Adriane Lenox), only to discover there is a hostility about the way the cells were obtained and who is profiting.
It is different with Deborah who only wants the truth to be told about her mother. Rebecca meets a woman who has idiosyncrasies and doesn’t care what the other family members want or need. Deborah begins to tell her side of things and listens to what Rebecca has to say. Learning that her mother has had a literal hand in all things medical keeps Deborah on her toes.
So much so that she trusts no one and has a short fuse. Yet the next day Deborah introduces Rebecca to Zakariyya (Reg Cathey) who shares his anger with Dr. George Gey (Reed Birney). Taking a trip, Deborah takes her to meet Henrietta’s sister Gladys (Andrea Frye) and Sadie (Leslie Uggams) who shared the fun side of life.
That puts Rebecca into high working with Deborah and other family members to put a life with the cells. That angers her brothers who want Deborah to stop. The story Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Courtney B. Vance) is told and more family secrets are revealed and what has brought Deborah to her mental place.
As their journey together goes deeper and deeper, Deborah falls deeper into a dark place trying to make sense of the life she knew and the one she is trying to live now.
Winfrey as Deborah plays a very complex character. She wants to learn all the details of what has happened to her family but her mind goes into scary places the more she remembers. There are moments of sheer panic followed by the intensity of mistrust and the tears of a child who is confused about the mother she lost as a child. That’s a difficult character to navigate but Winfrey does so eloquently.
Byrne as Rebecca is a woman who has no idea what she is getting into. Thinking that writing a story about a woman’s life and cells is one thing but when it becomes clear that Henrietta is so much more she takes a different path. Forming a friendship with Deborah is more than she could ever have imagined and it changes her moment by moment as the words of the story form.
Cathey as Zakariyya has the same issues of anger and bad memories as Deborah and leans on her to take the family journey together. His moment of seeing his mother’s cells is childlike and loving.
Beasley as Cliff is a man who sees the pain that Deborah is in and brings his spirituality to guide her and it’s amazing. Uggams as Sadie is the keeper of happier times with Henrietta and also their eventual protector.
Other cast includes Byron Jennings as Dr. Victor McKusick, Leon Lamar as Cootie, Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Dr. Roland Pattillo, and Karen Reynolds as Mrs. Gey.
The Blu-ray includes the bonus features of “Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, along with writer/director George C. Wolfe and members of the Lacks Family, discuss the legacy of Henrietta Lacks in this compelling Family Featurette.”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is based on the book by Rebecca Skloot. The film comes full circle with an ending that tugs at the heart. The story is one of family, secrets, pain and the immortality of one woman for all of mankind.
The relationship between Rebecca and Deborah is tumultuous at best and a journey neither one of them could ever have expected. Learning to trust one another and wanting Henrietta’s story to be told truthfully, good and bad, makes this story even more moving and intense.
Break out the tissue because this story, from beginning to end, will bring out every emotion.
In the end — discover what we are all made of!