‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ reviews: Oprah Winfrey gives ‘one of the best performances of her career’

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres on Saturday night, April 22, on HBO, and the reviews have been positive. As of this writing it has scored 66 on MetaCritic and 67% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. Most critics seem to agree on one point: Oprah Winfrey‘s performance is the highlight.

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In this true story adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name, Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks, who is desperate to learn about her mother Henrietta (played in flashbacks by Renee Elise Goldsberry). Henrietta died at age 31, but her cells have lived forever. They were harvested without her knowledge and have been used for medical research ever since due to their unusual resilience, which has allowed them to survive and be reproduced repeatedly.

In playing Deborah during her search for information about her mother, Winfrey gives “one of the best performances of her career.” She’s “mesmerizing,” and this role “is a reminder of just how powerfully she can inhabit a character, even a difficult one.” The telefilm is directed by Tony winner and Emmy nominee George C. Wolfe with “considerable stagecraft.” As a whole it’s “an emotionally powerful film that does justice to Lacks, her legacy and her family.”

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Winfrey already has a Primetime Emmy for Best TV Movie as a producer of “Tuesdays with Morrie” in 2000, and she could win that again as a producer of “Immortal Life.” She also has numerous Daytime Emmys as a producer and host of her self-titled talk show which ran from 1986 to 2011, but she has yet to win an Emmy for an acting performance. Will this film do the trick? Check out some of the reviews below, and join the discussion with your fellow TV fans in our forums.

Verne Gay (Newsday): “There are a pair of world-class actors in the leading roles, surrounded by other world-class actors — all working off Wolfe’s script. What could go wrong? Pretty much nothing does … Yet even with the artistry of all the performances, and the considerable stagecraft, “Henrietta” locates the emotional payoff — that summer storm — in the usual place: The human heart.”

David Wiegand (San Francisco Chronicle): “‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ the HBO film based on the book by Rebecca Skloot and airing Saturday, April 22, has been created with more than competent direction, writing and performances. It’s an emotionally powerful film that does justice to Lacks, her legacy and her family.”

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Maureen Ryan (Variety): “The HBO movie about this trio makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book.”

Hank Stuever (Washington Post): “As far back as her Oscar-nominated film debut in 1985’s ‘The Color Purple,’ Winfrey has been a reluctant actress, appearing here and there in projects that appealed to her, sometimes just to play a cameo version of her media-magnate self. Her performance here as Deborah is a reminder of just how powerfully she can inhabit a character, even a difficult one.”

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