Roush Review: Oprah Winfrey in 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

Matt Roush
Review Quantrell Colbert/HBO

Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Surely Oprah Winfrey knows a thing or two about immortality. Never one to play it safe, the pop-culture icon and industry mogul once again demonstrates her range by channeling emotional authenticity into the demanding role of Deborah Lacks, a woman of unstable temperament yearning to find out more about Henrietta, the mother she never knew but who was known to science as a once-anonymous medical legend.

In tackling the tricky task of adapting the nonfiction bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks into a prestige HBO movie, director and co-writer George C. Wolfe turns the story into a moving road trip of discovery, not just for Deborah but for the viewer, who may be just as unaware of Henrietta's posthumous contributions to medicine. Only decades after Henrietta's premature death from cancer in 1951 did her family learn that her rare immortal cells (code named "HeLa"), harvested without her consent, astonishingly lived on and were reproduced, continuing to this day to be used as an invaluable tool of research in developing vaccines and treating diseases.

Life Lessons: How the Oprah-Starring 'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' Found a Life on the Small Screen

Life Lessons: How the Oprah-Starring 'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' Found a Life on the Small Screen

HBO and a star-studded cast—led by Oprah Winfrey—bring the unbelievable story of medical wonder Henrietta Lacks to the screen.

Enter journalist/author Rebecca Skloot (an overeager Rose Byrne), who's obsessed with the goal of rescuing Henrietta from obscurity, but first must win over the wary and embittered Lacks family that a perky, giggly white freelance reporter can do justice to her story. As Deborah and Rebecca embark on a journey into Henrietta's past, unearthing demons that unsettle the possibly bipolar Deborah, theirs is an often testy and tested relationship.

“Sometimes learning is just as painful as not knowing,” one observer warns, and there is traumatic yet necessary catharsis along the way as Henrietta (a luminous Renée Elise Goldsberry) comes into focus, finally getting the respect and thanks she deserves. You might wish the movie spent as much time with Henrietta as it does with her daughter and the intrepid writer, but even if it sends you to the book to learn more, The Immortal Life will have done its job.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Premieres Saturday, April 22, 8/7c, HBO

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