Coincidentally, I’m recently re-reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot, which Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films optioned in 2010, to adapt into a feature film for HBO. Our last update on the project was earlier this year, when it was announced that the project was still very much alive (it had been so long since the initial acquisition announcement that it seemed the project may have stalled), and that Oprah was going to co-star in the film as Lacks’ daughter.
Announced today, Rose Byrne (“Damages” and much more) has been cast opposite Oprah in the HBO Films project. She will play the author of the book that the film is based on, Rebecca Skloot.
It’s a book I first read in 2010, and very much a captivating read.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” tells the story of Lacks, a poor African America Baltimore mother of five who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31, and whose cancerous cells, removed and cultured from her body for medical research by doctors at Johns Hopkins (without her family’s knowledge), led to significant breakthroughs in medical research, ranging from aiding the development of the cure for polio, to AIDS-related treatments, and much more.
But that doesn’t even begin to really uncover the story of this mostly-unknown black woman, her family, and the significant contributions she unknowingly made to science. There’s a lot of meat to chew on here, and I can see why Oprah would be interested in making a film based on Lacks’ story, and aftermath.
The book was published in February of 2010, and I encourage you to pick up a copy if you haven’t. You can buy it here.
Oprah reportedly loved the book so much that she “couldn’t put it down,” she said 5 years ago, and read all 384 pages in one sitting. The adaptation was said to be high on HBO’s priority list at the time, thanks to her encouragement. But it’s taken 6 years to finally push it into production.
Initially Oprah was expected to just produce. But she will star as well, playing Lacks’ daughter Deborah Lacks in a film that will chronicle her search to learn about her mother and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs.
George C. Wolfe will direct from a screenplay that he also wrote/adapted, so Winfrey and now Byrne should be in very good hands here (I smell potential Emmy nominations down the road).
Henrietta Lacks’ sons Zakariyya Rahman and David Lacks, Jr. as well as granddaughter Jeri Lacks, will serve as consultants on the project, which will be produced by Winfrey’s Harpo Films, as well as Your Face Goes Here Entertainment and Cine Mosaic Productions.
No ETA yet. But I wouldn’t expect another lengthy gap between now and the next announcement.
But while we wait for further updates, watch the below BBC documentary on Henrietta Lacks and her so-called “immortal cell line.” It’s titled “The Way of All Flesh.” It’s not entirely comprehensive, and shouldn’t be relied on as a sole source. But there’s enough here to get you going, especially if you know nothing about Lacks’ story. Consider it a companion to the book.
Directed by Adam Curtis, the documentary aired in 1998.
Deadline was first to report on Bryne’s casting.