Why I Won’t Be Watching the Henrietta Lacks Story

Source: Oregon State University via Flickr

The Henrietta Lacks movie is finally here and after months of being so excited for its release, I don’t think I’m going to see it. I had the privilege of meeting the Lacks family in October 2016, when I was assigned to do a story on them for a Baltimore-based magazine. This was definitely a privilege that I will always hold dear to my heart, especially because the Lacks family are very weary of people approaching them for information, understandably so, since they’ve been taken advantage of over the years.

When I first met the family I knew next to nothing about Henrietta Lacks. I was shocked that in all my years of schooling and time in a health education environment, I’d never heard of this woman and the remarkable contribution she made to science. The more digging and research I did, the more I realized why I’d never heard of her…she was a poor black woman from Virginia with limited education, who was being medically treated during a time when consent was non-existent. As far as researchers were concerned, she didn’t exist…some of them didn’t want anyone to know she existed by changing her name in connection to her specimen over the years. While talking with the family, I learned that no real compensation has been given to them, and many of them still struggle to get the medical care they need. Huh???? How is it that the descendants of a woman, whose cells reshaped and magnetized the world of research can’t afford medical care? So when I learned that a movie was being done based on her life story, I was super-excited. The movie is being done by HBO – awesome!!! Oprah is going to be part of the project as well – super awesome!!! This meant the family would get some type of recognition and compensation not only for what their mother/grandmother went through, but for the invaluable contribution her cancer cells made to global research. We’re talking vaccines for polio, HIV research, and cancer resistant research; that doesn’t even begin to cover what Henrietta’s cells have done for the world of biomedicine. Just look up the term “HeLa”. According to the family, enough is not being done and they’re not too happy with Oprah either.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a medical expert nor am I a lawyer in any way shape or form. I don’t know how the world of bio-based movie making works and how the family should be involved. I just figured since Henrietta’s life was headed for the big screen that the family has been recognized or compensated at this point. Well according to them, that hasn’t happened, and they’re tired of being overlooked. Should Oprah have cut them a check? Should Johns Hopkins give them unlimited access to medical care? I don’t know – the family should’ve been taken care of by now. One thing I do know as of this moment, I won’t be seeing the movie.

If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.

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