From Earth Day’s March for Science in Washington DC and other cities to the debut of “Bill Nye the Science Guy’s” new Netflix series, science – and the critical role it plays in improving human life and explaining the world – has been making headlines.
But a new HBO original film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tempers that enthusiasm with a true-life case study about the human costs of untrammeled experimentation.
The film, based on Rebecca Skloot’s #1 New York Times bestselling book from 2010, opens with a smart, jazzy montage about the extraction of the “HeLa” cells in the 1950s, the first successful “immortal” human cell line that was found to divide indefinitely in a lab. The HeLa cell line played a key role in the research and treatment of many diseases. We see the names of some of them – influenza, polio, tuberculosis, cancer, leukemia, AIDS, and Parkinson’s – flash big and bold across the screen.
But one name written in small print – the name of the unwitting donor of the tumor cells, an African American tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer – is redacted, leaving only the letters HeLa. The doctor behind the discovery instead offered up a false name, “Helen Lane,” concealing Lacks’ identity for 20 years.
The story then picks up with Skloot (played by Rose Byrne), a science writer who reaches out to Lacks’ daughter to get a clearer picture of their family. Oprah Winfrey gives a solid performance as Deborah Lacks, a woman who has suffered immense physical, mental, and spiritual anguish as a result of her mother’s history. She is not only a daughter mourning the loss of the mother she never knew, but also a sister trying to protect her family, even while she finds herself “not knowing what was going on, not knowing who to go to for understanding.” Deborah marches beside Skloot, a cane in her hand and a “WWJD” lanyard around her neck, as the two travel to Henrietta’s hometown, speak with relatives, and eventually make their way to Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, she touches the foot of a statue of the risen Christ in awe – a motion that not only connects her to her mother’s past, but also captures so much about her own.
At first glance, the HeLa case seems to be a peripheral legal conflict over issues of medical privacy and informed consent. In an interview with Skloot, Deborah acknowledges that Henrietta got standard treatment for the time at Hopkins; that taking tissues without consent had been standard practice for decades, regardless of race; and that Henrietta’s cells were (at first, anyway) given away for free for the betterment of human health.
But as we learn more about how Deborah and her siblings were manipulated, kept in the dark, or simply disregarded to keep the scientific program of HeLa on track, deeper historical injustices around race and class swell to the surface. Early on, Skloot is asked about the history of African Americans and science, and mentions the Tuskegee study, when from 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service intentionally withheld treatment of syphilis in African American sharecroppers to study the effects of the disease. Later, the two are able to track down a file on Deborah’s sister Elsie, who was committed to “the Hospital for the Negro Insane” (later named Crownsville). In that tortured face, forgotten in a dusty file in a mostly empty hospital, we see a reflection of the ugly history of eugenics and forced sterilization that once gripped so much of America and even inspired the Nazi regime. Not surprisingly, Skloot opens her book with a quote from Elie Wiesel’s The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
Henrietta’s story is presented as a later echo of this longer struggle. If The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks falls short of greatness as a movie, it’s still a story of great social significance. It’s a reminder to be vigilant in shielding the dignity of the human person from the demands of science, and to never treat people as means to ends instead of ends in themselves, even when – especially when – the benefits appear to far outweigh the encroachment.
And it makes that case very simply: with the concrete personal bond between two women. In the lives of a loving mother cradling a baby destined for so much pain, and that broken daughter later cradling a picture of a mother shrouded in so much mystery, we discover two universes unto themselves – unrepeatable, irreducible, and immortal.