What Happened When Oprah Talked To Black Female Writers About Henrietta Lacks

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
On a sunny April morning in New York City, the cast of the upcoming HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gathered at the London Hotel to talk to a room of reporters, myself included. There was a tangible electricity in the air, both because we were all anticipating the arrival of Oprah Winfrey and Tony award-winning director George Wolfe, but another immediately obvious reason: All nine of us in the room were Black women.
Not one of us had ever attended a work event where everyone in the room looked like us. And apparently, we weren't the only ones who found the room's makeup remarkable. As soon as Winfrey entered — hair laid, pressed, and curled to perfection; hands clasped in front of a cream-and-brown striped sweater — she yelled “Black girl magic!” And then she sat, turning in her swivel chair to survey each of our faces individually. “When has this ever happened?” she asked. “This is a story in itself!”
Advertisement
Of course, it was purposeful that HBO chose a group of Black female journalists to interview the people who are shining a spotlight on yet another Black female hidden figure. Until recently, Henrietta Lacks was not a familiar name to most — despite the fact that she has quietly transformed modern medicine for over half a century, and posthumously no less. But in 2010, reporter Rebecca Skloot told the story of the young Baltimore woman whose cells (nicknamed "HeLa") were taken from her without her consent during cervical cancer treatment in 1951 and then used to develop the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and much more — all without any credit to Lacks or her family.
Now, Skloot's best-selling novel is an HBO movie drama starring Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, as well as actress Rose Byrne as the reporter and author, and Hamilton star Renee Elise Goldsberry as Lacks herself. The movie version centers on Deborah, who's played so convincingly that at times I completely forgot it was even Oprah in the scene (a feat for someone who has been a household name for decades), and her journey to learn more about her mother's story with Skloot, a sweet but green (and, at times, irritating) reporter portrayed by Byrne.
“What's unique about this story is that it's from the perspective of a young white girl who is very naive,” Byrne said of her character. “She's got no experience with African-American culture, admittedly. And then [she's learning] from an older African-American woman, on this very unusual experience they have together, so [trying not to depict her as] the 'white savior' was something we discussed from day one. It's complicated and complex, and it's something that I really leaned on George and Oprah for so I could try to understand, to navigate — to put it delicately.”
Advertisement
Though Winfrey was an executive producer of the film and champion for Lacks since reading Skloot’s book in 2010, she admits she was not gung-ho about acting in the project. "I would not have done this movie without George Wolfe," she said. "When Audra McDonald and I were trying to do a play and it didn't work out, she said 'if you get the chance to be directed by George Wolfe, take it. George makes you better.' And she was right. It's like having your own personal director/therapist excavating for you, helping you to go deeper, richer; make you broader, wider. And that was the experience that I was looking for. So even in 104 degree Atlanta heat, standing out in that crazy-ass car [while filming], I would say, 'I'm doing it because of George!'"
Of course, a project that is a combination of science, the legacy of a deceased Black woman, and her family members, many of whom are still alive, did not come without its controversy. Though the majority of the Lacks clan served as consultants for the film, Lacks' son Lawrence has accused Oprah and HBO of exploiting his mother, much like the world of medicine has done her cells for many years, and there have been dozens of stories about the rifts that have occurred within the family over the years.
When asked how he walked the thin line of respecting the family and creating a story dramatic enough for an HBO film, Wolfe said: “The family is drama. This woman walks into a place called Johns Hopkins Hospital, and she doesn't come out alive. The hospital didn't kill her. The cancer killed her. Then, somebody knocks on [the family's] door, doesn't bother to explain why they are there, and in an off-hand comment, somebody turns to [them] and says 'Your mother's been in outer space and in nuclear bags.'"
Advertisement
And there's a reason Skloot's reportage was such a surprise to the real-life Lacks family. Wolfe goes on: “Because Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, which means it happened ‘down there,’ the family wasn't going to have a conversation about what happened. So it was secrets and secrets. But withholding information from someone is a sin. The fact that Johns Hopkins kept information from the family is a sin. The fact that people within the family kept information away from her is a sin.”
But Winfrey is quick to add that though Henrietta Lacks' story is unique, the strife within her family is not. “In all my years on The Oprah Show, I was always so surprised that white people are just as equally dysfunctional!" she said. "Most of the damage in families comes because of all the secrets held. It's in everybody's family.”
Ultimately, however, both the writers in the room and the cast agreed that more important than dealing with disgruntled family members or receiving props for the film is simply spreading the word about Lacks and her story.
“I worked in Baltimore as a young reporter from the time I was 22 to 30,” said Winfrey. “I went to church every Sunday, been to Hopkins many times. I'm a student of the African-American culture. But I had never, in all of my readings, in all of my stories, ever heard of HeLa or Henrietta Lacks. I could not believe that. How had I been in this town all the time and never seen one thing about her? So, when I first read the story in 2010, I wanted to tell the story, because it is my nature to share everything. I wanted as many people to know about this story as possible. So, hopefully, now you do."
Advertisement
And then, the time with the Henrietta Lacks crew was up. Reluctantly, all nine of us turned off our recorders, slammed our notebooks shut, and gathered our belongings to say goodbye. But first, there was one order of business that had to be taken care of: a group selfie.
Because although it's another step forward to tell stories like Lacks’, it’s still a rare and exceptional occasion to have more than a handful of Black women in power in one room. And that's also a story that needs to be told.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks airs on HBO April 22 at 8 p.m. EST.
Advertisement