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An immortal life comes to TV

Published in St. Louis American, April 6, 2017


I knew it was coming, but I still had mixed emotions when I read that the story of Henrietta Lacks had finally become a movie. The HBO movie will premiere on April 22 and is based on the 2015 book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The word “amazing” doesn’t do justice to the story of this poor tobacco farmer who died at the young age of 31 years old. I know what Hollywood does to the lives of real people, so I’m naturally apprehensive about what to expect.

Oprah Winfrey expressed an interest in the story back in 2015. Reportedly, she was so mesmerized by the book, she read it in one sitting. (The book had the same effect on me.)

 The Oprah Midas touch made Skloot’s book a New York Times Best Seller – with a little help from her book club. Winfrey quickly co-purchased the rights to the book, and it was speculated that a movie was in the wind. She is also the executive producer of the movie and plays the role of Lack’s daughter, Deborah.

Who is Henrietta Lacks, and why are we talking about her some 65 years after her death?

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after the birth of her fifth child. The doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took cells from Lacks without her knowledge or permission. Her husband was left in the dark as well. Her family didn’t find out what happened until some 20 years later, and it wasn’t due to the honesty of the hospital.

For reasons still unknown, Lack’s cells were the first to live in a test tube outside of the body, and they could multiply and multiply. Her cells were harvested and sold all over the world.

The good thing about the cells is that they have led to medical breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, chemotherapy and cloning; they have been used to save many lives. The downside is that the Lacks family never received a penny from the sale of their mother’s cells. An attempt to sue Hopkins was unsuccessful, and the medical-industrial complex did not feel the need to voluntarily compensate the family.

It’s sickening to know that medical and biotech companies have made billions of dollars from selling what is called the HeLa cells, taken from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name. More than 17,000 U.S. patents have been filed involving her cells. The Lacks family has never received a penny of these profits. The family has gone through its own trials and tribulations over the years, including having no health insurance. Lacks didn’t get a headstone for her unmarked grave until Morehouse College donated one in 2010.

How to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks is the source of family tensions that apparently have spilled over to the making of the movie. Some members want justice, while others want to move on and embrace the positive that has come from her DNA.

I’d be a family member saying, “Show me the money!” Not just to get the financial justice for my suffering family, but to use the unending profits to support the health and wellbeing of poor communities. This would include legal action against the likes of Hopkins who stole a part of a poor, black woman’s body. The story of Lacks is one of many tragic examples in this country’s racist history of how black bodies get exploited.

I strongly urge that you read the book before the movie comes out so that you know what’s real and what’s fantasy. Always remember, Henrietta Lacks is no made-up Hollywood character. She was a real human being.

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