Oprah Winfrey has signed on for the role of Deborah Lacks in an HBO film adaptation of the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The media mogul has been spearheading the project for more than six years, after HBO films acquired the rights on behalf of Winfrey and her producing partner Alan Ball (creator Six Feet Under, True Blood).
The project will begin filming this summer from a script by George C. Wolf (Lackawanna Blues, Angels in America) who will also direct. The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, will serve as a co-executive producer.
It took Skloot 10 years to research and write the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells, sampled during a cancer biopsy in 1951, were taken without her consent and sold for research purposes. Her cells were discovered to possess a rare mutation allowing them to indefinitely divide and form new cells, which meant they could continually provide a lab with material for testing.
The cell line has produced more than 20 tons of cellular material and been involved in the research of nearly 11,000 patents. Neither Henrietta nor her family knew the cells had been sold until scientists called the family in the 1970s, seeking blood tests. They discovered their personal medical records had been used and published, and that millions of dollars were being made from HeLa cells. No compensation or recognition had ever been offered, and nobody had asked permission.
When Skloot’s book was published in 2010 Oprah, NPR, The New York Times, and other outlets named it a best book of the year.
Oprah will play Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, as the film chronicles her search to learn about the mother she never knew and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. It’s a story of medical arrogance and triumph, race, poverty and deep friendship between the unlikeliest of people.
No other casting announcements have been made. Henrietta’s sons David Lacks, Jr. and Zakariyya Rahman and granddaughter Jeri Lacks, will serve as consultants.
Oprah doesn’t take on many acting roles and those she chooses are often on these kinds of passion projects. She’ll be seen in the upcoming drama series Greenleaf, debuting this summer on OWN. Her last acting performances were in 2014’s Selma as Annie Lee Cooper and 2013’s The Butler as Gloria Gaines. Besides a voice role in The Princess and the Frog in 2009 all her other acting appearances dating back to 2008 have been as herself.