Oprah Winfrey and the Powerful Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Winfrey's new film 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' tells the true story of the woman whose cancerous cells changed the face of medicine.

Posted in , Apr 20, 2017

Oprah Winfrey and Henrietta Lacks, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Oprah Winfrey’s new HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tells the incredible story of the 31-year-old African American woman whose cancerous cells changed the face of medicine forever.

In 1951, the mother of five walked into the segregated area of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, to get treatment for an aggressive, cancerous lump on her cervix. She never came out alive, but her cancerous cells—taken during a biopsy by Johns Hopkins doctors without Lacks’ knowledge or consent—created the first immortal cell line, HeLa, which launched the entire biomedical industry.

HeLa cells are responsible for the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization, treatments for leukemia, influenza, Parkinson’s disease and more. They’ve been on space missions and have been used in thousands of research studies. Because Hopkins obscured Lacks’ name from history for decades, not even the most powerful woman in media knew her contribution.

“I worked in Baltimore as a young reporter from the time I was 22 to 30,” Winfrey tells Guideposts.org of her history in Lacks’ town at a New York press junket for the film. “I went to church every Sunday at Bethel A.M.E. (at the 8 o’clock service because the 11 o’clock was too full); I’ve been to Hopkins many times. I am a student of the African-American culture…and I, in all my readings…had never heard of HeLa or Henrietta Lacks.”

Winfrey was astonished when she came upon the book that would become the source material for her film in 2010 when it was published by science writer Rebecca Skloot. “How could I have been in this town all that time and never seen one thing [about] her?” Winfrey knew she wanted to play a role in helping to tell Lacks’ story—beyond her life-changing, “immortal” cells.

Winfrey, who served as executive producer on the film, stars as Deborah Lacks, the youngest daughter of Lacks’ five children, who, at 50 years old, still has a deep longing for her mom, who died when Deborah was 2 years old. Though Skloot, played by Rose Byrne, wants to write and publish a book about Lacks and the family with Deborah’s help, Deborah wants to heal.

After the family discovers what Johns Hopkins did with their mother’s cells, many journalists and scam artists come around to try and profit. Deborah suffers from many physical and mental health issues as a result of the stress. Though much of the film is viewed through Skloot's lens, the heart of the film is in Deborah’s journey to connect with the mother she never knew and find some peace.

“She’s taking the journey in the first place because she really wants to know about herself,” Winfrey says of her character.

In the most powerful scene in the film, which features one of Winfrey's best performances to date, Deborah recalls the violent childhood she and her siblings experienced when they were abandoned with harmful relatives after their mother died. Winfrey’s emotion vibrates the screen as she embodies the storm outside of Deborah’s window. Rocking and howling, Deborah recounts to Skloot her history of sexual assault by an uncle, the cruel beatings her aunt unleashed on her brother Zakariyya that caused him to grow into a cruel man, and the tragedy of her older sister, who died in a mental institution. Lacks, whose cells have saved so many lives around the world, could not save her own children from harm. But for Deborah, helping to tell her mother’s story could mend the wound of Lacks' absence.

“This relationship [with Skloot]," Winfrey says, "becomes her balm, her solace, her comfort.”  

Though the biomedical industry operates in the billions, the Lacks children grew up working class in the Jim Crow South, with limited opportunities for financial success and a slew of health issues. The family has still never been compensated for Hopkins’ unauthorized use of HeLa cells—a powerful reminder of the generational impact of racism in America.

At least, thanks to Winfrey’s Harpo Films and HBO, Henrietta Lacks is no longer hidden history.

“I wanted as many people to know about this story as possible,” Winfrey tells Guideposts.org. “And now you do.”

Watch The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks April 22 on HBO.

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