"The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks" - Rose Bryne, Oprah Winfrey Journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) accompanies Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) to Johns Hopkins Hospital to learn more about the mother she never knew
“The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” – Journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) accompanies Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) to Johns Hopkins Hospital to learn more about the mother she never knew (Credit: HBO)

As you may have heard or read, there’s some behind-the-scenes turmoil over HBO’s upcoming “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” telepic, which premieres this weekend, April 22 – turmoil that the star and producer of the film, Oprah Winfrey, says she is “disappointed” by.

Specifically, the Lacks family (who has never been compensated for their mother’s immense contribution to science) reportedly remains divided on the retelling of Henrietta’s story for the screen. The cancer patient died in 1951 not knowing that her tumor cells (now called HeLa cells) were harvested and duplicated into “immortal” cell lines by Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers at the time (raising questions of consent, as the cells were taken without the knowledge of Henrietta and her family), to be later used by scientists for medical testing all over the world, and are still very much in use today. A book chronicling Lacks’ life and aftermath by Rebecca Skloot became a bestseller, was soon optioned by Winfrey, and is now a much-anticipated film that will air on HBO this Saturday night.

And as publicity around the film increases, so has coverage of unrest within the Lacks family. Specifically, Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s eldest son, is publicly challenging the “inaccurate” and “racist” portrayal of his family. His public relations reps sent out a press release stating this. In addition, he accuses HBO, Winfrey and Skloot of profiting from his mother’s legacy without giving back to the family. In the statement, Lawrence also claims that author Skloot has made just “one small donation” to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which she launched after writing the book.

When the project was first announced, some questioned both the motivations of its makers, as well as whether the family (who has never fully financially benefited from the contributions their mother’s cells made to science) would be compensated by the producers of the HBO film.

According to previous reports, 5 Lacks family members were paid consultants on the film; however Lawrence Lacks told the Washington Post that he turned down HBO’s $16,000 consultant fee offer and refused to attend an advanced screening of the film because he was asked “to sign my rights away,” he told the Post, adding, “I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about my mother anymore,” suggesting that this was part of the agreement presented to him by HBO.

Winfrey, who produced and stars in the film, told USA TODAY that she was “disappointed” in Lawrence, stating: “Lawrence’s part of the family and his son Ron didn’t want to see it. We were willing to show it to them in a separate screening from the rest of the family… I know this for certain: That Lawrence Lacks was offered multiple opportunities to participate as a consultant on this film, along with the rest of the family members, and each time [HBO] was turned down.”

Winfrey further shared some pre-production details when the Lacks family met with the film’s producers: “His son Ron spoke to me at the luncheon that we held, and said to me then that he didn’t appreciate the way Rebecca had portrayed their family as being poor people, and that they weren’t poor. I said to him, ‘That’s not my interpretation of the story. I interpreted it as you were working class, middle class, and certainly people striving to make a living every day.”

She added: “… to read that Lawrence Lacks, who supposedly has been complaining about the way she’s depicted both in the book and the film, never read the book! That is a drop the mic moment for me.”

In an interview, author Rebecca Skloot also chimed in with this: “When I was working on the book, once I understood what the family had been through, I knew I didn’t want to be someone who came along and benefited from the story without doing something for them in return… So I started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. The broader mission of the foundation is it provides assistance, grants for education, health care and emergency needs for people who made significant contributions to science without their knowledge or consent, and their descendants.”

Skloot says that over 56 grants have been given to the Lacks family through the foundation, while other moneys have gone to the descendants of those exploited during the Tuskegee syphilis study.

However, Winfrey, who told USA Today that the Lacks family disagreement is one that “I would be happy not to be in the middle of,” doesn’t believe that she, Skloot nor HBO are in any way responsible for ensuring that the Lacks family is adequately compensated for the contributions that their mother unwittingly made to science: “I certainly do not feel that it is HBO’s responsibility or mine or [director George C. Wolfe’s] — or Rebecca Skloot’s even — to now make sure that the family has money for the rest of their days… The fact that they were never compensated for any of those cells by any of the drug companies, that is really unfortunate. I do think they should have been compensated by somebody who profited from it… [we’re] just trying to do a film to bring the story to light.”

And maybe in doing so, drawing wider attention to the story than nit has ever received previously, justice may finally come for the Lacks family.

Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (played by Winfrey), the film chronicles her search to learn about the mother she never knew and understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever.

Joining Winfrey in front of the camera are some stellar actors including Renee Elise Goldsberry, Courtney B. Vance, Leslie Uggams, Rocky Carroll, Rose Byrne, Reg E. Cathey, Reed Birney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Douglas Thompson, Adriane Lenox, Kyanna Simone Simpson and Roger Robinson.

George C. Wolfe directs from his screenplay adaptation of Skloot’s book.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” telepic (which we expect will be an Emmy contender) premieres this weekend, on Saturday, April 22. While you wait, you’re encouraged to watch the below BBC documentary on Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cell line, titled “The Way of All Flesh.”

Produced in 1997 by Adam Curtis for the BBC (about 13 years before Skloot’s book), “The Way of All Flesh” is not entirely comprehensive, and shouldn’t be relied on as a sole source on Lacks and her family line. But there’s enough here to get you going, especially if you know nothing about Lack’s story, and haven’t read Skloot’s bestseller. Consider it a companion to the book, which you should also read.