Oprah Winfrey erupts in HBO's powerful 'Henrietta Lacks'

Carla Harmon
April 20, 2017

There's going to be a movie. Lacks' cells were taken without her family's consent during her battle with aggressive, fatal cancer in 1951. "And she said for years she wanted Oprah to play her in the movie".

During her first visit to the show, Winfrey will discuss her new HBO film, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". I got to spend quite a bit of time with her. These cells were able to reproduce outside the body at astonishing rates, making them ideal for medical research. "Her grandmother is someone who's a part of all of us now, in a literal way if we've had a polio vaccine". Skloot's prodigious reporting in her book brought the story of Lacks' cells, and her family's struggle to recover their mother's legacy, before the public consciousness.

"I see all of my work as a kind of offering", Winfrey says in a telephone interview from her estate in Santa Barbara, Calif. Oprah Winfrey is an executive producer and the star. "One of the defining characteristics of my personality is whenever I discover anything, whether it's a great juicer, or as a kid a great candy bar, or as now a great story, I love to share it", she says.

"Of course, someone of that profile, and [me] playing very intense roles, a journalist trying to really get in her space, you know so, and with somebody whose profile everybody wants a piece of you".


Of the time she spent with Skloot - whose dogged pursuit of the story is the reason we know about it today - Byrne said, "Rebecca's really a force of nature".

"In segregated America, on paper, she had no power", says Wolfe.

"The desire to know one's parents — that's a very primal thing", he says. By design, the audience knows only as much about Henrietta as Deborah does.

Skloot is writing a second book, on the ethics of human-animal relationships. You've got to get in there and wrestle.


Wolfe's involvement also helped convince Winfrey, who hadn't planned to star in the film but reconsidered, thanks to a recommendation from Audra McDonald.

Winfrey has shot for one particular scene in the series with Byrne. "I have to work really, really hard to pull up anger and rage".

"There's a lot of beauty in the science and in her life and family, along with the darker side", Kripke says. "I don't live in that space".

Cathey, a veteran of "The Wire" and "House of Cards", who plays Deborah's younger, damaged brother, Zakariyya, felt a bracing connection to his own losses: "I remember thinking about Mom and Dad and how I'm now an orphan". When one of the sons started a Henrietta Lacks Healing Center, I did make a six-figure donation to it. Winfrey brushes off the criticism. "Her thing was not about the money", she says of Deborah. She'd have had on some really bright colors ... So then I decided, let me try to dramatize it, and then maybe you can see it. "It was a big job for her to bring that character to life". As a result, these valuable cell lines, which have come to be known to research labs and biotechnology companies worldwide by Henrietta's abbreviated name, HeLa, have been instrumental in dozens of medical breakthroughs for a number of diseases, including cancer and AIDS, and are still in use to this day. Byrne focused on capturing Skloot's spirit. So, it was only after George came on board, and George said definitely you should do it.


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