The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Synopsis: An African-American woman becomes an unwitting pioneer for medical breakthroughs when her cells are used to create the first immortal human cell line in the early 1950s.
Director(s): George C. Wolfe
Production: HBO Films
  Nominated for 1 Primetime Emmy. Another 1 win & 17 nominations.
Rotten Tomatoes:
93 min


Gosh almighty.

The Johns Hopkins Science Review

with Dr. George Gey.

In this jar, we have a sample

of cancerous human tissue.

What makes this sample so unique

is that this is the first cell line

we have discovered

in over 30 years of trying

that can survive and reproduce indefinitely.

With this, scientists will

be able to perform experiments

that they never could

on a living human being.

Growing like crabgrass.

Free of charge!

Well, how many vials do you want?

Known as "HeLa," this cell strain

has since been given to laboratories

around the world.

Used by doctors and scientists

to perform experiments and research,

starting with Dr. Salk's polio vaccine.

Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

The people, I would say.

There is no patent.

Would you patent the sun?

Did you know the donor?

No. No, but towards the end of her life,

I leaned over her hospital bed.

By this time, she was unconscious,

and I said to her,

"Your cells are going to help a lot of people

"and make you immortal."

What was her name?

We see no reason why an interesting story

could not be written without using her name.

And so, George, rather than run the risk

of getting in trouble for disclosing it,

the cell strain should be referred to as "HeLa"

and the patient's name not be used.

Helen, Helen Lane.

...remarkable advances

in medicine and surgery

that are bringing us tomorrow's medicine.

For years, it seemed like a dream,

not knowing what was going on,

not knowing who to go to for understanding.

Didn't even know how to talk about it.

About our mother? Could this be true?

We miss you.

And we love you, Mama.

Freelance science

and medical writer and editor.


With a degree in...

Biological sciences.


this represents the entirety

of your journalistic career?

Yes, well, thus far.

Deborah is Henrietta's baby girl.

The family calls her "Dale."

She's 50 now, living in Baltimore

with grandchildren of her own.

She's the most determined to know about

her mother and the most vulnerable.

Deborah came near a stroke recently

because of all the agony she's gone through

regarding the inquiries

into her mother's death and those cells.

I won't be a part of anyone

doing that to her.

Oh, no, no, I... Dr...

What can you tell me

about African-Americans and science?

Well, from 1932 to '72,

the U.S. Public Health Service, uh,

withheld treatment from

a group of African-American men

infected with syphilis so they could study

the long-term effects of the disease.

- And look, I know I'm white...

- And from Portland.

Yes. Yeah. That's right.

But when I was in high school,

my father got very sick

and ended up in a research study.

And, in my opinion, the hospital,

you know, they didn't behave

in the most ethical manner,

and I remember being very angry about that.

And at the same time,

I was taking a biology class

at a community college,

and the teacher told us about the cells

and how they've been

at the forefront of basically

every major medical breakthrough,

and they belonged

to a black woman named Henrietta Lacks.

And after the class, I asked him,

"What can you tell me about her?"

And, you know, the second he told me

that he didn't know anything,

I just became obsessed with it.

And, Dr. Pattillo,

the Lacks family trusts you,

so if there is anything

that you could do to help me

connect with Henrietta Lacks' children,

I would be so, so grateful.

Yeah, who's this?

Hi, my name is Rebecca Skloot. How are you?


Dr. Pattillo actually gave me your...

- How's he doing?

- He's fine.

I'm not sure exactly how much he told you

about what I'm trying to do.

Just that you was gonna ask me some questions

about my mama's cells.

Yes, yes, well, um,

uh, I want to write a book about your mother.

And while there's all this stuff

about her cells,

it always struck me

that nobody ever wrote about her or her life,

and that's why I've been

trying to track you down

and your family down to see if you would be

interested in working with me,

and just telling me, um, more about...

About her.

Well, all I gotta say

about that is, hallelujah!

Finally, somebody want to talk about my mama.

Because back when I was a child,

old folks, they didn't talk

about nobody who wasn't alive,

so my whole life,

I grew up not knowing one thing,

not even the littlest things,

like what was her favorite color,

or... Or what happened to her clothes,

her shoes?

Now, I know about that watch and ring

'cause they got stolen

by the time my brother killed that boy.

What exactly did her cells do?

Girl, you better get yourself ready,

'cause this story

is crazy enough for three books.

I'm ready, I'm ready.

Bet you didn't know my mother's sister

converted herself to Puerto Rican.

And that state hospital, "the hospital

for crazy Negroes" they used to call it,

we are not skipping over that part.

Plus all the things

I've been dying to know, really,

but don't 'cause she died

when I was so young.

Like, did she... Did she breastfeed me?

Did she... Did she love to dance?

No, it's... I'm...

It sounds like

we really want to do similar things here.

- Mmm-hmm.

- I live in Pittsburgh

and I don't have a publisher yet,

but I'm committed and determined...

- Grandmama, mail!

- Oh, my God!

I can't talk to you now.

Mail. Gotta go.

Now listen, uh, you can call me

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Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca L. Skloot (born September 19, 1972) is a freelance science writer who specializes in science and medicine. Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), was one of the best-selling new books of 2010, staying on The New York Times Bestseller list for over 6 years and eventually reaching #1. It was made into a movie by George C. Wolfe, which premiered on HBO on April 22, 2017 and starred Rose Byrne as Skloot. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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