One of the people I most respect and admire in this world is Oprah Winfrey. She once said, “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.”
That particularly resonates for me now because as a blogger and social influencer, I relish the opportunity to support my heroes. Aiming to amplify their good works and messages is something we especially enjoy here at The Awesome Muse. So when I received an email from Joshua DuBois at Values Partnerships telling me Oprah would be available for an interview / conference call for a small group of select influencers, I jumped at the chance to be part of that call.
What happens when you find out you get to be on a call with Oprah?
What’s it like to get that email? First of all, frankly, I hyperventilated. Then I started to shake which kind of turned into a really awkward looking happy dance. It wasn’t pretty. Then I texted my husband and my mom. (I’m honestly not sure if they believed me at first.) I felt stunned and didn’t know what to do. Then reality set in.
It hit me that I need to really do something with this. As luck would have it, I was ready. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.
And it turned out, Oprah needed people like me to be additional mouthpieces for an amazing movie she is starring in about an incredible woman, Henrietta Lacks, naturally called, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And what do I do? I write.
It was time to research. I had heard of Henrietta Lacks because of Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times bestseller of the same name, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But I hadn’t read the book at that point, and I had only a cursory familiarity with the subject. As Oprah would say, it was time for me to “do the work” to help her spread her message.
So before we get to what Oprah had to say, let’s first fill you in on who Henrietta Lacks was and her great contribution to society. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you. But it is important to know some tidbits about Henrietta Lacks’s experience, her global influence, and what happened to her legacy.
— The Awesome Muse (@theawesomemuse) April 12, 2017
Who was Henrietta Lacks?
Who was Henrietta Lacks? Learn more about her history and watch the movie on HBO on 4/22 at 8pm.
Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, VA on August 1, 1920. She lived to be 31. It’s a bit of a mystery of how Loretta Pleasant became Henrietta Lacks, but many agree it has to do with adoption. Henrietta lost her mother when she was only 4 years old, and she went to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.
She worked as a tobacco farmer for many years, even after starting her family. However, World War II was being fought, and her cousin convinced her and her husband to move to Dundalk, Maryland, which is now part of Baltimore. She would go on to have three more children while living there.
This sounds like a familiar war-time story where a family uproots themselves in search of a better situation. And it was. Until Henrietta got sick. That’s when Henrietta Lacks would change the world.
In 1950, Henrietta received a cervical cancer diagnosis. She went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. At the time, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients. Her doctor took a biopsy of the mass on her cervix.
Sadly, Henrietta learned she was suffering from epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. (Her diagnosis later received a posthumous revision to adenacarcinoma.)
Henrietta Lacks received treatment with radium tube inserts. Take note, because here’s where the history happens. During these treatments, two samples were taken without her knowledge or consent and provided to Dr. George Otto Grey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. These cells form the basis of the HeLa immortal cell line still used today.
Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to medical and scientific history was made without her knowledge, or her consent for that matter. And that makes the story all the more intriguing.
And here’s where Oprah and HBO come in.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a movie on HBO
HBO will air the movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on April 22nd at 8:00 pm Eastern time. Starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, Debra Lacks, and Rose Byrne as writer Rebecca Skloot, the movie tells the story of Rebecca unearthing Henrietta’s story and Debra’s search for her mother.
Can you imagine not knowing your mother and finding out that because of her, many people, in fact, most people, have benefitted from her contribution to society?
Here’s the teaser trailer for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Now that you have “met” Henrietta Lacks, let’s see what Oprah Winfrey has to say about her experience playing the role of Henrietta’s daughter, Debra Lacks.
Oprah Winfrey on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
To make it easier to read, Oprah’s answers will be in italics. In this first part, Oprah discusses how she got involved in the movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and her experience with the film. For part two, Oprah discusses the issues surrounding HeLa cells. In the final installment, Oprah discusses how you can support her work on the film.
What was it about the story that drew you in?
Question: How did you come to the role? What was your experience reading the book the first time? What was it about the story that drew you/ pulled you in?
I love that question. Prior to this book, I also lived and worked and was a member of the Baltimore community. I went to Bethel AME Church every Sunday; I covered stories at Morgan State University; I’ve spoken at Morgan State University; I had done stories at Johns Hopkins as a reporter. And in my 8 years of being a member of the community – a contributing member of the community – I had never heard the name Henrietta Lacks or HeLa cells mentioned.
And I was astounded by my own ignorance of that. I was confounded by it because when I read the book, I wondered how could I have lived in Baltimore all this time? Been on the same streets where she lived, worked on the same streets where she lived and worked – both Henrietta and Debra Lacks – and yet had never heard of her.
The common thread
“If I don’t know that story, there are at least a million other people who don’t know that story.” – Oprah
I always figure that because I understand the common thread, the commonality of the human experience, I know that if I don’t know that story, there are at least a million other people who don’t know that story. And because Rebecca had done such an excellent job of persevering, her tenacity to get this story told through Debra Lacks, I thought well, I could best bring light to that by turning it into a film and getting more people to know who she was and what her contributions were.
It took a while to get the right kind of support for the film because we had gone through a couple of different script writers and it was only because George Wolfe and I had been talking about working on another project. I wanted to work with George Wolfe more than anything.
Director George C. Wolfe found a way to tell the story
I always thought that someone else should have played the role. George said I should definitely do Debra. “I know a way in. The way into the story,” George said, “is through the eyes of Debra and her search for her mother’s identity.” We know who we are based on what has happened to us in the past. Knowing who you are and the price that was paid for you is of value to every human being.
It was of particular value to Debra who didn’t know her mother, you know, nobody in the family talked about it. We all come from families and a culture where many things are left unsaid and unspoken when you really don’t know the answers or are embarrassed or ashamed of what the answers may show as they unfold. Her determination and really deep yearning and seeking to know who her mother was is what drew me to the story.
Thank God for Debra, and thank God for Rebecca Skloot. I have to say that for this young white woman to pursue with such determination and drive to figure out what had actually happened to Henrietta Lacks was really profound on her part.
Memorable Production Moments on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Question: Were there any memorable moments from the production that you would like to share? Being on set? Being in and around Baltimore?
It was homecoming for me to come back to Baltimore. Because I feel like I got my woman chops in Baltimore. I came in there when I was 22 and left 8 years later when I was 30 and went on to Chicago. So it was like homecoming for me being in Baltimore.
Meeting with the Lacks family
I would have to say that coming to town first, because both HBO, George and myself, all wanted to meet with the family before we started this process. Particularly, I wanted to meet with the family. I felt that it was important. HBO felt it was important. George felt it was important (George Wolfe the director). We all felt it was important that we sit down with them and have a conversation and allow a sense of collaboration on what they understand both about Debra Lacks and Henrietta Lacks. It was also important to me, because you know, a film and a book is one thing, and the life a person lived is their life.
So I wanted the family to know that we, the filmmakers, were going to do our utmost, in our own integrity, to present the spirit and essence of this story, but that in no way could I be everything that they wanted their mother to be on screen. Because each person has their own personal memories of what their relationship is, so a film can only present a piece of that to the world.
I look at every piece of work that I do. Whether it was 25 years of the talk show [the Oprah Winfrey show], or you know the series that we do on OWN and now this film – my work is an expression and an offering to the public and however it is received, I feel blessed by that. I do the work. I offer it to the world. And then I release it.
This post is the first in a series of three articles sharing Oprah’s wisdom and experience related to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. You can find the second and third installations here on The Awesome Muse:
- Part Two: Interview: Oprah on Henrietta Lacks’s Contribution to Medical Science
- Part Three: Interview: Support Oprah’s Movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
You may also enjoy reading Rebecca Skloot’s book the movie is adapted from. The book is available at Amazon.