The name Henrietta Lacks may not be well-known, but her impact on the medical community is long-lasting. Lacks was a mother of five diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early 1950s. Doctors took samples of her cancer cells without permission before she died, and went on to use them in medical labs for decades. Those cells became the basis for advances in modern medicine like the polio vaccine, chemotherapy and in vitro fertilization
The HBO movie, “The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks,” based on a book of the same name, stars Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne and Renee Elise Goldsberry. The three stars joined “CBS This Morning” Tuesday to discuss Lacks’ incredible contribution to science and how her story came to light.
Winfrey plays Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, who goes on a mission to learn about her mother. Byrne portrays reporter and author of the non-fiction book that inspired the film, Rebecca Skloot, while “Hamilton” star Goldsberry portrays Lacks.
Winfrey admitted she was hesitant, at first, to take on the role given her more limited experience as an actress.
But that changed once Winfrey heard Skloot’s tapes of Lacks’ daughter and when actress and singer Audra McDonald told Winfrey that if she ever got a chance to work with director George Wolfe, take it. Wolfe, a Tony Award-winning director and playwright, co-wrote and directed the film.
“I did this because I wanted to work with George and I did this because when I first heard the tapes that Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, had of Deborah, she had hours and hours of tapes, Deborah actually wanted me to play her,” Winfrey said.
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. She’s incredibly smart but incredibly determined, and if she has her mind on something she will get it. And she’s a very impressive person. I got to spend quite a bit of time with her. She was very candid with me.”
“Thank you, Rebecca Skloot, for doing that and making this possible for all of us,” Winfrey said.
Lacks’ stolen cells, dubbed HeLa cells, are still making an impact even today. According to Winfrey, “Her cells, which are still duplicating as we speak, replicating as we speak, helped contributed to the polio vaccine, to the AIDS cocktail, to practically every piece of medicine that now is in existence has some form of HeLa, HeLa has contributed to it.”
Lacks’ story is not just about science but also abuse.
“They didn’t want anybody to know those were her cells and didn’t want her to be identified as this African-American woman. I think — you think of all the people who had benefitted from her cells through, you know, medical science, a lot of them not knowing that this was an African-American woman’s contribution that, you know, led to their own personal healing. So we feel it’s a victory to get the story made,” Winfrey said.
Goldsberry, who portrays Lacks, said, “It’s a story we can get so caught up in, the science of it, because it’s still so controversial, but I love to talk about the beauty of just a woman who was so young, and seemingly so disenfranchised and the impact that she had, especially when you look at her family today and see all the things that they continue to contribute two generations, three generations later. I think it’s an empowering story that should inspire all of us to tell our stories to our children.”
“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King asked about the controversy surrounding one of Lacks’ sons who has complained that his mother was exploited by the recent book and movie.
“Let me say. I think there’s one family member who is disgruntled. The rest of the family were consulted on this film,” Winfrey responded. According to Winfrey, it turned out that family member had not read the book. “My feeling is you don’t get a right to complain if you haven’t read the book. You need to at least read the book,” Winfrey said.
Goldsberry added, “And if you go to Instagram you’ll see Rebecca Skloot walking around New York City with Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughter and daughter-in-law and great-granddaughter taking pictures with the Henrietta Lacks posters that are up.”
Winfrey said, “It feels prophetic. This coming into fruition is part of her dream. We always felt on set any time something would go right or wrong –” Goldsberry finished, “Henrietta was there.”
“The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres Saturday on HBO.