'The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks' Divides Lacks' Family


HBO's new film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is, in part, about how Henrietta Lacks was taken advantage of by big industries who made a profit off of her without her consent. But the movie also focuses heavily on Henrietta's now-adult children, and what the real-life Lacks family thinks of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is complicated, to say the least. (Bustle has reached out to a representative for the Lacks family for comment, but hasn't heard back at this time.)

Based on the book of the same name by journalist Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows Skloot, played by Rose Byrne, as she speaks to Henrietta's family members in order to investigate the story of how the woman's cells were taken and experimented on by scientists without her knowledge or consent. (Lacks' famous HeLa cells were the first cells scientists successfully kept growing in a lab, leading to many medical breakthroughs.) The movie focuses primarily on Skloot's relationship with Lacks' daughter, Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), who died in 2009, and it's unclear how she would have felt about being the subject of a movie.

Five Lacks family members were paid as consultants on the film, however, but not Henrietta's son, Lawrence. In fact, Lawrence has been a vocal opponent of the film, having spoken out against the movie in the months leading up to its April 22 premiere.

In multiple interviews and press releases, Lawrence and his son, Ron, have accused the book of misrepresenting Henrietta — though Lawrence admitted to The Washington Post that he has never read it. Ron told The Washington Post that he felt that in the book, Skloot portrayed the Lacks family as falsely uneducated and poor. "She made us stereotypes," Ron said. "People think we're dirt poor." In the interview, Ron and Lawrence also expressed frustration with their own family members, some of whom speak about the Lacks family experience at various medical research events.

When it comes to the film, Lawrence isn't much more forgiving. After reportedly turning down a $16,000 offer to consult on the film, Lawrence and his son also declined an offer to see an advanced screening of the film.

"It's bad enough Johns Hopkins took advantage of us. Now Oprah, Rebecca and HBO are doing the same thing. They're no better than the people they say they hate," Lawrence said in a recent press release, via The Baltimore Sun.

Winfrey, who's also an executive producer of the film, responded to the statement, telling USA Today, "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." Bustle reached out to HBO for comment on this matter, but hasn't heard back at this time.

Despite the critiques from Lawrence and Ron, the film does have overwhelming support from many Lacks family members. Still, the group is not all in agreement when it comes to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and that's unlikely to change any time soon.