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In 'Henrietta Lacks,' Oprah Winfrey reveals one woman's remarkable legacy

By: Peter Marks The Washington Post
April 19, 2017 Updated: April 19, 2017 at 5:00 am
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Oprah Winfrey says she lives without feeling rage, which is a nice way to go through your days but potentially limiting when you're playing the pivotal character in a film about an emotionally scarred woman who is all but consumed by it.

Needing to get in touch with some visceral fury, Winfrey reached out to one of the students she calls "my girls" - a young woman from the South African leadership academy she famously endowed - and asked her to recount her experiences with an aunt who had beaten her. Winfrey had been beaten as a child, too, but time and other sources of healing blunted the pain to the point where, as she puts it, there was no "charge" for her left.

"I asked her to tell me the story because I didn't have enough charge from my own beatings," she explains. "I have to work really, really hard to pull up anger and rage. But hearing someone else talk about their beatings, I could have great empathy, great compassion, great sorrow and sadness."

And an explosive sense of indignation, a summoning she found immensely helpful in conjuring a daughter struggling to come to grips with the fate of her long-dead mother in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," a movie directed and largely written by George C. Wolfe and based on the best-selling 2010 nonfiction book of that title by Rebecca Skloot.

It's easy to see what the attraction was for the 63-year-old Winfrey, in one of her infrequent acting forays. Her last movie role was in 2014's "Selma," and she appeared in the 2016 drama series "Greenleaf" on her TV network, OWN. Via HBO, she took the project to Wolfe, a theater veteran, after their plans to work on a Broadway show together failed to crystallize.

The film, which features Rose Byrne as Skloot and a supporting cast that includes Renée Elise Goldsberry, Reg Cathey, Courtney Vance and Leslie Uggams, tracks a reporter's investigation into the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died in obscurity in Baltimore in 1951 but who nevertheless became world-renowned - on a cellular level.

Scientists found that the cells cultured from her tumor samples didn't readily die off, which meant they could reproduce again and again. As a result, these valuable cell lines, which have come to be known to research labs and biotechnology companies worldwide by Henrietta's abbreviated name, HeLa, have been instrumental in dozens of medical breakthroughs for a number of diseases, including cancer and AIDS, and are still in use to this day.

Winfrey takes a deep dive into rage as a consequence of portraying Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah, sometimes called Dale, a woman so disordered by grief and grievance she seems to live in a limbo of distress: Although her mother's cells have enduring purpose, Deborah can't find any deep meaning for her own life. (Goldsberry plays Henrietta in flashback sequences.)

Byrne's Skloot, sensing the inequity of a medical establishment profiting from Henrietta's unwitting bequest but offering no compensation to her struggling descendants, persuades the erratic Deborah to team up with her to excavate material for the book.

So it's actually the stories of two women, separated by death. By way of Deborah, the movie is about a citizen seeking redress from powerful institutions. The medical world, represented here by Johns Hopkins University, where Henrietta was treated and her tumor was removed, is not excused from criticism, although the movie doesn't look for villains. Through Henrietta, the film enlarges on a positive notion, of one person contributing to the betterment of humankind in a way that transcends one's modest circumstances, or even the knowledge the benefits have occurred.

"It is a story of economic injustice," Wolfe insists. "But the movie is also about taking this person from abstraction and claiming this person as a tangible human being. One of the things that I really love is that in 1951, on paper, one of the least powerful people you could be is a moderate-income black woman. And yet HeLa was so powerful."

What got to Winfrey, one of the film's executive producers, was less the science than the search. "Her thing was not about the money," she says of Deborah. "It was, 'I just want to figure out who my mother was.'"

Winfrey was encouraged in that point of view by Wolfe, she says, when he told her: "It's the story of woman's search for her own identity through her mother, and if she can figure out who her mother is, she can figure out who she is."

The effort to translate Skloot's book to the screen had gone through several false starts before Wolfe came on board, but for the author herself, the most "mind-bending" point in the process was when Winfrey signed on.

Because Deborah, who died in 2009 just before the book was published, had her heart set on a chain of events that fell astonishingly into place.

"She wanted nothing more than the story to go out into the world," Skloot says. "And she said for years she wanted Oprah to play her in the movie."

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