Spot­light on a special woman:

It’s a rare drama role for Oprah Win­frey.

The TV Guide - - News -

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)

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