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Henrietta Lacks’ Son, Grandson Say Oprah Is Only the Latest to Exploit the Family for Own Gain

Oprah Winfrey’s film version of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has generated mass media coverage due to its star. (HBO)

The family of Henrietta Lacks has issued startling new claims about Oprah Winfrey, who is starring in and producing the HBO film adaptation of a book based on Lacks’ life.

Lawrence Lacks, the 82-year-old son of Henrietta Lacks and present executor of her estate, alleges Winfrey’s HBO film, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” presents inaccuracies about his mother, stemming from the 2010 book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot.

“It’s bad enough Johns Hopkins took advantage of us,” Lawrence Lacks said in a statement provided to Atlanta Black Star. “Now Oprah, Rebecca and HBO are doing the same thing. They’re no better than the people they say they hate.”

Lawrence Lacks told The Baltimore Sun in February that agreements between Johns Hopkins Hospital and the National Institutes of Health to use his mother’s cells for research were invalid. Such agreements did not include compensation and Lawrence Lacks said the organizations have been profiting off the cells, known as “HeLa cells,” without a penny going to the family. Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line in 1951, without her permission.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. (Courtesy of Lawrence Lacks)

On the inaccuracies portrayed in the film and the book, Henrietta Lacks’ grandson Ron Lacks, who is gearing up to take over executor duties, said he and his father, Lawrence Lacks, met with Oprah at a luncheon to discuss the movie’s development where she and the film’s director, George C. Wolfe, promised to portray Henrietta Lacks’ story accurately.

“We expressed [that] we didn’t like the book,” Ron Lacks said. “And [Oprah] stated, ‘Well, I ain’t gon’ go by the book, I’ma do it on my own.’ I mean, just that little conversation with my father and I — I don’t want to say nothing bad about her — but she still didn’t [try] to find out what was going on.”

Ron Lacks debunked several factual errors in the book and the HBO film that his father outlined in a press release, clarifying that Henrietta Lacks was a sharecropper who owned land and was not an enslaved woman, that she could actually read and write as proven by documents showing her name written in cursive, that all the Lacks children did not attend Henrietta Lack’s funeral — which Skloot stopped Lawrence Lacks from revealing in his own book — and that the family was actually educated and is middle class rather than impoverished and uneducated.

“It’s part of Skloot’s racist mythology,” Lawrence Lacks said. “If she can present the family as poor and uneducated, she can present herself as [a] spokesperson for the family and make money and promote herself on her lies.

“It makes a better story if we’re poor and dumb.”

From left: Erika Lacks, who got her master’s degree from Walden University in 2012, Courtnee Simone Lacks, who graduated from Morgan State University in 2013 and Lawrence Lacks. (Courtesy Ron Lacks)

“I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt,” Ron Lacks said. “To say, ‘Oh, she just jumped into something without first knowing what was going on or what was really happening with the family,’ [but] she still went ahead. So, I don’t know what to call that. I tried to look at it as, ‘Hey, she just didn’t know or she just didn’t care.’ I mean, I don’t know. All I know is that nobody took the time out and looked at it from my father’s point of view.”

“Not only are they making money using my mother’s name, they’re telling people they’re supporting us when they’re not,” Lawrence Lacks said in a statement. “It’s embarrassing.”

Ron Lacks said filmmakers offered his father $16,600 to consult on the film, which he turned down.

“That’s an insult to my father,” Ron Lacks said, adding the movie spent more than $35,000 on catering. Ron Lacks also confirmed that the money Skloot promised the family through her 2010-established Henrietta Lacks Foundation largely were not received except for family who he said “signed their rights away,” like his cousin and uncle who have gone on press tours with Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren (from left): Ron Lacks, who is slamming the movie’s representation of his family, his cousin Al Lacks and sister Donnie Lacks with their father, Lawrence Lacks. (Courtesy of Hope Lacks)

“Rebecca has divided the family,” Ron Lacks said. “Some of them have been dealing with this so long, they figure, ‘Hey, well, we might as well make something. This is the American dream, to make money.'”

He added the funds donated to the Henrietta Lacks foundation “only goes to them. It doesn’t go to anybody else that didn’t sign their rights away,” so half of the family has not seen any profit from Skloot.

“Just because you didn’t want to sell your rights away, we’re not going to give you anything,” Ron Lacks added. “I don’t think people are donating that money for … They donate it, they think it’s going to the family — all of us.”

Update: Since this interview, Crown Publishing, the publisher for Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” has released a statement refuting some of the claims made by Ron and Lawrence Lacks. The statement provided to Atlanta Black Star reads in part, ” ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ is a “meticulously researched and reported work of independent journalism and Skloot provided multiple copies of the manuscript to members of the Lacks family and solicited their comments and corrections, which were subsequently incorporated in the book.”


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