More than half a century after her cells propelled some of the most significant medical breakthroughs of all time, Henrietta Lacks is finally getting some recognition.
In case you didn’t read Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the book tells the story of Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore whose cancer cells were taken during a medical procedure in the early 1950s, and because of their unusual ability to multiply, went on be used in research leading to everything from chemotherapy drugs to in vitro fertilization.
On Saturday, April 22, the story will come to the small screen in an HBO film adaptation produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter Deborah and a cast featuring Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta and Rose Byrne as Skloot.
The film centers on Deborah — who was only 2-years-old when her Henrietta died — and her quest to find answers about her mother, which intersects with Skloot’s search for the identity of the woman behind the famous HeLa cells. There are also occasional flashbacks featuring a young Henrietta, establishing the environment that shaped the woman who produced some of the most influential cells in medical history.
Creating the film version of the book was “an amazing and very long process,” Skloot told SheKnows. In fact, discussions on making a movie started before the book was even published — and there was no shortage of interested parties with competing ideas of how the adaptation should look.
Enter: Oprah Winfrey.
It was early February 2010, and Skloot was at the last stop of a four-month-long book tour staying at a friend’s house in Chicago when her phone rang around 5 or 6 a.m.
She picked up and heard a familiar voice: “Rebecca? Oprah. How are you doing?”
Winfrey had just finished reading (note: It was 5 or 6 a.m. in Chicago, so it was even earlier in LA where Winfrey was located) and had to call Skloot in the moment to share her experience and emotional response to the book and why she thought it was such an important story.
While there was other interest in producing the movie, once Winfrey and HBO were on board, Skloot said there was never a question of who would be making the film adaptation.
“This team [HBO and Winfrey] wanting to join together on this was so clearly the perfect combination of people and places,” Skloot added.
In fact, for Skloot, Winfrey’s involvement was more than perfect — it was destiny.
Back in 2000 while researching the book, Skloot was in the car with Deborah, who confidently insisted that “someday this book is going to come out and it’s going to become a best-seller and Oprah’s going to make a movie and she’s going to play me in it.”
After years of searching for clues about her mother’s identity and contribution to science, Deborah was finally getting answers; 17 years later, she’d get the movie.
The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Deborah was at first reluctant to trust Skloot and agree to participate in her investigation. After years of misinformation — including wrong names and other inaccuracies — surrounding Henrietta’s cells, Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family, Skloot said that it was important to her that the movie didn’t add to that confusion and stick to the facts as much as possible.
From the beginning, Skloot insisted that Lacks family be as involved as possible in the making of the film — and said that HBO was completely cooperative. Skloot and upward of 15 members of the family served as consultants for the film and visited the set several times. She said that it was “an incredible experience to watch some of the scenes I had witnessed a decade earlier brought to life in front of me.”
In addition to letting people know about Henrietta’s incredible contributions to science and medicine, Skloot also hopes that the film’s release will bring attention to the work of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation — an organization Skloot started to help people who have made important contributions to science without their consent, as well their descendants.
Currently, the foundation has provided 56 grants to the Lacks family for everything from health care to education, and additional grants for education to relatives of subjects from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
For Skloot, a major takeaway from the book and movie is the importance of women taking ownership of their own health care, prevention and treatment. When Henrietta first sought treatment in a segregated hospital in the 1950s, doctors didn’t know how to diagnose her — but she knew something wasn’t right.
“Even without a science education or any means, she knew her body well enough and somehow had the fortitude and insight to say ‘no, something is actually wrong with me’ and to go looking for it herself,” Skloot explained. “There’s a scene in the book where she actually found the tumor herself on her cervix. She knew something was wrong and she tried to get evidence of that and went to Hopkins and said ‘I have a bump on my cervix’ — that is one of the most incredible moments in her story.”
That in itself was a revolutionary act, according to Skloot; Henrietta worked as her own advocate and managed to get herself into a hospital with top-of-the-line care.
“Even though the average woman is not going to have her cells used for decades in research projects around the world, I think it the book made people more aware of issues surrounding informed consent and access to health care for marginalized populations,” Skloot said.
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