Oprah Wants The World To Knows Henrietta Lacks Is A Hidden Figure No More
She is making sure we know, and never forget, Lacks’ story through a new film on her life.
Oprah Winfrey is a one-of-a-kind woman.
Her life story is inspiring, her presence powerful and her influence unmatched. And when it comes to successful black women in media, Oprah reigns supreme.
But if Oprah is a well-crafted diamond, consider Baltimore the pressure that helped make her shine. She moved to the city in 1976 to pursue her career as a newscaster, which presented both great opportunities for success as well as challenges she eventually overcame. She spent nearly eight years in the city, first working for a local TV station ― where she was assigned to learn about every neighborhood ― and later as a personable and popular co-host for a show called “People are Talking” that helped to significantly boost her profile.
She told stories, and she told them well ― but in the nearly eight years she lived in the city and of all the people she came across, there was one hugely significant story of a woman who lived in Baltimore who she ― and much of the world ― never knew about: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, also known as the “mother of modern medicine,” and she was a black woman who produced the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa, that has entirely revolutionized medical research.
“I worked in Baltimore as a young reporter from the time I was 22 to 30. I lived there, I went to church every Sunday,” Oprah said Tuesday at a press event with all black women reporters, including myself. “I am a student of the African American culture ... I have never, in all of my readings, in all of my stories, heard of HeLa or Henrietta Lacks. I could not believe that, how could I have been in this town all this time and never seen one thing about her?”
It wasn’t until Oprah read Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times best-selling biographical book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that she learned of Lacks’ story and how she changed the world.
“When I first read her story in 2010, I wanted to tell the story,” she said. And by “tell,” she meant giving the story the full-blown Oprah treatment and bringing it to life through film and her own magic touch. Because, after all, when Oprah stumbles across a good story, she shares it with the world.
“It is my nature to share everything,” she said. “I wanted as many people to know about the story as possible ... and so now you do.”
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres Saturday on HBO, starring Winfrey as Deborah, Lacks’ daughter, who was desperate to learn more about her mother’s cells and how they have been used for medical research. The family had been unaware of the dealings of Lacks’ cells for decades because her name had been changed to Helen Lane in print. This effectively concealed Lacks’ identity and kept hidden from the family how her cells had been “taken, bought, sold and used in research without her knowledge or theirs,” according to Skloot’s book.
Skloot, a freelance science writer from Portland, Oregon, first learned of Lacks’ story in high school and was so moved by it that she pushed to make it more widely known through her book ― which took years of heavy research and the family’s cooperation to create. Skloot, who is portrayed in the film by actress Rose Byrne, tracked Deborah down, and together, the two went on a journey to discover what exactly had happened to Lacks’ cells. The experience also unveiled truths that allowed Deborah to learn more about herself and her heritage.
“The reason Deborah is taking the journey [with Rebecca] in the first place is because she really wants to know about her mother’s cells,” Oprah said. “The journey for her is to discover herself and by learning about her mother, she [did]. This relationship becomes her balm, her solace, her comfort.”