The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Movie review by
Dana Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Movie Poster Image
Real-life tearjerker shows how lies hurt, truth heals.
  • PG-13
  • 2017
  • 93 minutes

Parents say

age 17+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Unsung heroes can and should be recognized; even after their death, knowing that they're honored is comforting to their family. The search for truth may be difficult, but it can bring healing.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Inspiring example of Rebecca Skloot's interest in Henrietta Lacks' unknown story, and her perseverance in writing a book to honor her. Deborah Lacks shows bravery as she helps Skloot uncover her family's past, even after severe mental distress.


Disturbing scenes of a child being beaten and a teenage girl being raped by extended family. Another family member is shown later with a baseball bat threatening to kill the perpetrators. Discussion about one of Henrietta Lacks' sons being sent to jail for killing someone; the same son as an elderly man out of jail uses threatening language about what he wants to do to the doctor who treated his dying mother.  


A few strong swear words used once: "f--k," "bitch," "ass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a drama based on the best-selling, non-fiction book of the same name. Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks who was the daughter of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who contributed -- without her knowledge -- the first immortal cell line to science. Since her death in 1951, Henrietta's cells (called HeLa cells) have been used in research that has contributed to many major medical breakthroughs. Journalist Rebecca Skloot, played by Rose Byrne, asks Deborah for help to research Henrietta's life for a book she's writing about the woman who unknowingly contributed so much to modern medicine. The movie contains a few strong swear words used once ("f--k," "bitch," "ass"), and brief but disturbing depictions of childhood physical and sexual abuse.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 5, 10, and 10-year-old Written bysilwuttke January 25, 2020


There is some violence like pictures and brief scenes of Henrietta being tortured some brief scenes of Deborah and her siblings being whipped there is also lang... Continue reading
Parent of a 2 and 9-year-old Written byNilus July 18, 2017


Although the details under 'sex' state "not applicable", under violence you will find details about a graphic rape of someone by her extende... Continue reading

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What's the story?

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS tells the story of how journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) research and wrote the book of the same name. Skloot was fascinated by the origin of the famous research HeLa (from HEnrietta LAcks) cells in college. She eventually asks Henrietta's daughter Deborah to help her research Henrietta's life as she prepares to write the book on the subject. Skeptical because of all the times the family has been lied to or had information withheld about their mom from the white-dominated medical profession, Deborah and her family cautiously cooperate with Skloot to put the pieces of their mom's life and medical puzzle back together. Through interviews with the family, many trips back to Virginia where Lacks was originally from, and historical research, Skloot finally writes a best-selling book book, and she and Deborah eventually help bring some healing to the Lacks family -- and recognition to Henrietta Lacks.

Is it any good?

This incredible true story, medical mystery, and family drama shows how fascinating, damaging, and anger-provoking the injustices of history can be. In the midst of all the wrongs, however, the uplifting parts of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks show that healing can happen in any situation, no matter how complicated. Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks brings a conviction to the now-deceased Deborah that speaks volumes to the eternal relationship between mother and child. When Skloot tells Deborah that "there isn't a person alive who hasn't benefited from your mother's cells," one can feel the sad irony in Deborah's mix of pride in her mom and anger that many members of the Lacks family struggled financially and with health issues.

Renee Elise Goldsberry's portrayal of the young Henrietta Lacks shows the vibrant life of a woman history tried to forget, but who was as full of life and caring for others in her lifetime as her cells remain to this day. This tear-jerking story of an unsung hero is just as good (even better in some ways) than the best-selling book.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the importance of learning about history. Knowing what really happened -- and who contributed to those important milestones in history -- can bring true heroes to light. What did you learn from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

  • Talk to your kid about how Rebecca Skloot had to use empathy throughout her reporting. What would it feel like to be Rebecca, working on this important project that was so personally sensitive to this family? Why is empathy an important character strength

  • Ask your teen: Is there a story that fascinates you so much that you'd be willing to spend months of your time and energy uncovering more about it? If so, why?

Movie details

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