The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Blu-ray Review)

There is no mistaking the quality of programming that comes from HBO. Productions like Westworld, True Detective and Game of Thrones continue to wow audiences with their exceptional writing, acting and direction. As those series are currently some of the mainstays of HBO, it can be easy to overlook the original films that come forth from the cable giant. One such movie is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There are a great deal of stories in our nation’s history that would never be told if it weren’t for the perseverance and preservation of a few determined folks. Mrs. Lacks’ story is one such case.



With many cases of non-fiction, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a book prior to becoming a movie.  Originally published in 2010, the true account of the Lacks’ family and the beautiful Henrietta was penned by freelance writer Rebecca Skloot.  How good was the book?  To give you an idea of the chord it struck with readers, let me just say it spent six years on the New York Times best-sellers list.  You read that right…years, not weeks.  Enter 2017 and the book became a 93-minute film on HBO starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

Being a product of Harpo Productions (Oprah’s production company), you can bet the media mogul wasn’t going to take any shortcuts in the telling of the Lacks account.  It follows the trials and tribulations of both Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) and Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) as the duo become an unlikely pairing to accomplish a mission of truth and respect.  Deborah Lacks was actually the youngest child of Henrietta Lacks, but seemed the most determined of the five children to discover the truth about the circumstances surrounding  their mother’s passing in 1951 (to be fair, one of the children passed away in the 1950’s).  The science that comes after is truly ground-breaking if nothing else.  Though this material is part of medical history, I don’t want to spoil anything outside the story basics.  With that in mind, I’ll just impart to you the notion that Henrietta Lacks was responsible for the polio vaccine. How that occurred though, is for you to watch on this disc.

Byrne gives us a noble and honest performance as she pursues a labyrinth of details regarding Henrietta and finds a willing partner in Deborah Lacks.  To give a description of Winfrey’s acting here, it is important to provide the mental and emotional context of Deborah’s life.  She had been pestered and lied to over the years by those wanting to “tell her mom’s story.”  It is no surprise that when Skloot shows up in her life, there is a great deal of reluctance, not to mention the paranoia and mental instability that Deborah exhibits from time to time.  Batman and Robin they are not, and yet that’s what makes their unified front such a beautiful thing.

The supporting cast, filling out roles such as the other Lacks children, do an exemplary job as well.  Rocky Carroll (Crimson Tide), John Douglas Thompson (The Bourne Legacy), Roger Robinson (Smoking/Non-Smoking), Renée Elise Goldsberry (One Life to Live), Adriane Lenox (The Blind Side) and Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards) provide great chemistry of a sometimes disjointed family that is still bound by love.  Meanwhile, behind the camera, George C. Wolfe handles directing duties, a position he’s only had a handful of times previously, but you’d never know it.  Wolfe handles the film like an old pro.  The film’s flow is logical and the emotional attachment between characters and audience becomes well-established early on and throughout.


The video presentation is brought to us in MPEG-4 AVC format in 1080p resolution.  It maintains the 1.78:1 aspect ratio when it originally aired on HBO as well.  I have to say, the clarity in this film is more than proficient.  Visually, it’s gorgeous.  While the film takes place between Maryland and Virginia, much of the shooting was done in Georgia.  From the country landscapes dotted with deciduous trees and dirt roads to the dilapidated structures of years gone by, your eyes will appreciate the clarity and lush color palette that is presented here.  While some of the story sequences that focus back when Henrietta Lacks was alive have a bit of that appropriate aged look, other flashback sequences look too crisp/modern despite the time period attire.  Honestly, that’s not a concern I’ve encountered before.  I mention it because it was only mildly distracting as consistency in the flashbacks would have been preferred.  Still, the video here is near reference quality.


This is a dialogue-driven drama.  Action films and sci-fi are typically the genres that thrive on Blu-ray sound capabilities and that’s no different here.  While clear and enjoyable in the Master Audio 5.1 track, there is nothing that is going to wow you here.  It’s just not the type of movie to do that.  Nevertheless, the opening jazz music, courtesy of the great Branford Marsalis, is wonderfully delivered through the front channels while the occasional chirp of nature can be heard in the rear channels during some outdoor scenes.   It’s mission accomplished in the sound area for this disc, just nothing that will knock your socks off.  Again, this isn’t the style of film where that is going to happen.


Because of the landmark effects of Henrietta Lacks to the scientific community, I expected much more in the extras department on this disc.  Instead, we’re relegated to two featurettes that total five and half minutes.  While they are both in high def, I would have liked to have seen interviews with the director and cast.

  • Family Featurette – Various clips from the film along with interviews of the Lacks family comprise this extra (2:26).
  • Filming in Georgia – The producers talk about filming on location in the Greater Atlanta area along with the support from local labor (3:13).


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is truly a memorable film that is multi-faceted.  There are times when frustration with various character behavior sets in and other times when you just want to step through the screen and lend an ear or offer an embrace.  Oprah’s performance is nothing less than award-worthy and the story is functionally told in in the 93-minute span without any feeling of gap or hurriedness.  If you can spare an hour and a half, do yourself a favor and experience The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


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