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Henrietta Lacks, a young black mother and wife, died of cervical cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Unbeknownst to her family, doctors took samples of her cancer cells—a common practice at the time. Her cells were what they’d been looking for: cells that would reproduce rapidly and survive for a long time. That made them perfect for research. Eventually those “HeLa” cells became big scientific business, leading to numerous breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine.

This HBO movie is based on Rebecca Skloot’s book by the same name. Skloot wanted to know more about the woman whose cells had changed the world. She tracked down family members, trying to break through the wall of distrust that had been built by the way the medical community had ignored, misinformed, and mistreated them over the years. The pain of that experience was compounded by racism, poverty, grief, and family trauma.

Oprah Winfrey stars as Deborah Lacks Pullum, the adult daughter of Henrietta, torn between her desperate desire to know about her mother and her anger at how the hospital and others in the scientific community had treated her family. Winfrey plays Deborah as Skloot portrayed her in the book—strong and passionate, even as she alternates between hopeful and despairing. Rose Byrne plays Skloot with a sort of nervous persistence that eventually allows Deborah to trust her, though Byrne seems a bit lifeless next to Winfrey’s performance.

Those who have not read the book may find this film sometimes confusing and will miss out on the complex history of the situation. The book is written from Skloot’s perspective as she investigates, and that works without putting her too much in the foreground. In the movie Skloot is the steady main character, the calm in the midst of the storm, which somehow seems to lessen the strength Deborah shows in the book.

However, if you don’t know this important story, the film is worth taking a look. The fact that HeLa cells could do so much for modern health is a testament to our awesome Creator, evident even in enemy cancer cells, and the pain that the family experienced from being kept in the dark makes clear the sacred nature of even our cells.

Rated TV-MA for language and some difficult scenes. On disc September 5. (HBO)

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