The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a condensed version of the book, with Oprah Winfrey taking the emotional lead. Needless to say, it’s worth the watch. But that doesn’t mean the 99-minute film could successfully include all of the noteworthy moments of Henrietta Lacks’ life, which are important to know in order to truly understand the woman who is now known as the “mother of modern medicine.”
1. Henrietta kept her illness a secret
In the books, we learn that Henrietta didn’t want to cause her family undo stress — she probably also felt like she needed to cope too before breaking the news — so she hid her illness from her family for a long as she possibly could. There wasn’t exactly a line of men waiting to donate blood to her cause like the movie portrayed. In fact, it was a long time before most people even knew Henrietta was ill. In the book, readers get the sense that Henrietta coped with a lot of the treatment on her own.
2. The medical records weren’t such a big secret
The way the movie made such a big deal out of Henrietta’s medical records kind of felt of the mark. Sure, Deborah was secretive about her mother’s affairs, mostly because the family was scared of being exploited by a journalist, but Henrietta’s medical history wasn’t exactly some big secret. The secret was more in her life story than her death.
3. It’s more science-y than that
Of course, the movie could have spent hours getting bogged down in the details of the cell research that went into making Henrietta immortal, but then it would have been a nonfiction television show and not a compelling movie, so they left out a lot of those details. The book, on the other hand, takes them on and delves into every moment of the doctors’ journeys to creating HeLa cells.
4. We know a lot about Henrietta’s backstory
The movie only skimmed the surface of Henrietta’s life, focusing instead more on Deborah and the family. But we know a lot now about Henrietta and her history. For example, she was born Loretta Pleasant, but at some time in her life decided to change her name to Henrietta. She was raised mostly by her grandfather after her mother died when she was just 4.
5. Henrietta’s husband was also her cousin
This was not really a “Southern” thing, nor was it just a product of the times. Rather, Henrietta and her husband David “Day” Lacks had a strange and unsettling beginning. They were raised together and shared a room. She became pregnant with their first child, Elsie, at age 14. It’s unclear if Day pressured her into sex or if it was consensual, but the relationship continued and the two were married when Henrietta was just 20. They had five more children together.
6. Henrietta’s husband was not the greatest
Day cheated on Henrietta consistently throughout their marriage and was probably responsible for giving her the disease that led to her developing cervical cancer at such a young age. Medical treatments, especially for the black community, were severely lacking during this time. Meaning that if Henrietta had contracted an STD, she likely wouldn’t have sought proper treatment.
7. That blood test didn’t happen until decades later, 1976 to be exact
While the film shows the nurses coming to the Lacks household when the kids were still young, the blood test actually didn’t happen until much later in the families’ lives. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1976, her son Lawrence explained the family knew nothing about Henrietta’s impact on the medical community until just a few months prior to the article when “a person called us on the phone and asked if we’d like to take a blood test. That’s the first time we heard about it.”
8. The family is fighting for compensation, led by Lawrence
The movie made it seem like the family had been so scarred by all the corruption and invasiveness surrounding their family and Henrietta’s cells that they were all just trying to move on, which really isn’t the case. The family wants to be compensated for Henrietta’s impact on the medical community. According to Huffington Post, they are fighting against Johns Hopkins, with Henrietta’s son, Lawrence, at the forefront. Johns Hopkins, on the other hand, maintains no wrongdoing, stating on their website in 2010 that they don’t own HeLa and haven’t profited from the breakthrough.