Oprah Winfrey's Latest Project Honors Henrietta Lacks - NBC Bay Area

Oprah Winfrey's Latest Project Honors Henrietta Lacks

Winfrey stars in HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” giving new life to an amazing story

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    Oprah Winfrey's Latest Project Honors Henrietta Lacks
    File photo of Oprah Winfrey, who stars in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

    Oprah Winfrey's long-running daytime TV talk show, at its best, excelled as a platform for ordinary people to shed extraordinary insight by telling their stories.

    That's the DNA of Winfrey's media empire, from her magazine to her TV network to her playing defiant underdogs in movies from "The Color Purple" to "Selma."

    The strands of the Oprah approach are woven into her latest effort as she stars Saturday in HBO's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," the movie version of the non-fiction bestseller about the long-anonymous woman whose cervical cancer cells fueled major medical advances.

    As detailed in Rebecca Skloot's remarkable 2010 book, it’s a compelling story that touches on race, greed, ethical violations and how one person can change the world – in other words, a story for our times.

    And it's a story built for Winfrey, who plays Deborah Lacks, the daughter of the title character.

    Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at age 31, leaving behind a young family. She also unknowingly bequeathed what became known as the "HeLa" cell line, which, unlike most cell lines, just kept reproducing, meaning a boon for medical researchers.

    Lacks' family didn't learn of this for nearly a quarter century as her cells reaped wonders – and profits.

    Deborah Lacks, in Skloot's 2010 book, comes across as a strong, complex personality. She's given to what would seem like paranoia – though her suspicion is rational given that she grew up in poverty, left in the dark for years about her mother's rich gift in a county capable of travesties like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. Deborah Lacks is a fighter determined to reclaim the mother she never got to know.

    The movie offers an opportunity to extend the legacy of Henrietta Lacks – and of Oprah Winfrey, who keeps giving new life to seemingly small stories that speak to larger truths.

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    Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.