George C. Wolfe
main title sequence for HBO Films
Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne star in this adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s critically acclaimed, bestselling nonfiction book of the same name. Told through the eyes of Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah Lacks, the film chronicles her search, along with journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne), 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.
Co-written and directed by George C. Wolfe for HBO, the film follows Skloot (Rose Byrne) and Deborah Lacks (Winfrey) on a journey to understand more about Henrietta, who died of cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951, leaving behind five small children and a legacy that would change modern medicine.
Unbeknown to Henrietta (played in flashbacks by Renee Elise Goldsberry), a doctor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore had removed cancer cells from her cervix. These cells were able to reproduce outside the body at astonishing rates, making them ideal for medical research.
The mass-produced HeLa cells, as they became known, have contributed to major breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization — all thanks to a black woman who died in obscurity and whose family has never been compensated for her contributions to medicine.
From the very beginning there was something uncanny about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks herself in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced boisterously in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so.
HeLa became an instant biological celebrity, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vivacious 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital.After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone who’s ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin.
Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.