Spotlight on a special woman:
It’s a rare drama role for Oprah Winfrey.
When she bought the film rights to a book about an African-American woman who became an unwitting pioneer in ground-breaking medical research, Oprah Winfrey had no plans to star in the movie.
“I did not want to be in it,” she says, of her role as Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life Of Henrietta
Lacks. “I had always thought it would go to someone else and I had several other people in mind.”
Henrietta Lacks, known to scientists as HeLa, was a poor African-American tobacco farmer whose cells – taken without her knowledge in 1951 – became one
of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilisation.
While Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, she remains virtually unknown.
“I lived and worked in Baltimore for eight years as a reporter,” says Winfrey, “and I was, many times, on the same streets as Henrietta Lacks walked. I was there from 1976 to 1983, and I never heard the name HeLa, or her name ever mentioned.”
It was author Rebecca Skloots who uncovered the story of Henrietta, who died from cancer at 31, leaving behind five children, including Deborah, who went on to suffer shocking abuse from the family members who raised her.
“Who wants to take that on? Who wants to live in the agitated, manic depressive, schizophrenic, paranoid, non-trusting, filled-with-rage and, sometimes, hopeful space of Deborah?” asks Oprah Winfrey. “But I did it.”
Her decision to be part of the film reflects the former talk-show host’s commitment to telling stories that offer insights into the struggles of African-American people.
She believes both race and class played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta and her extended family by scientific and medical interests that have profited from her cells.
“What’s difficult to justify is that there are family members who are still without health care, that need money to be able to go to the dentist,” Winfrey says.
“And there are family members that have trouble taking care of themselves when their mother’s and grandmother’s cells have helped to not only take care of, but literally help to revive and allow other people to thrive. It’s very unfortunate that they were never compensated by drug companies.”
“Who wants to live in the agitated, manic depressive, schizophrenic, paranoid, non-trusting, filled-with-rage and, sometimes, hopeful space of Deborah? But I did it.” – Oprah Winfrey
Above: Rose Byrne and Oprah Winfrey (right)