Oprah Responds To Henrietta Lacks’ Son Who Believes She Is Continuing To Exploit His Mother

April 24, 2017  |  

Oprah Winfrey

We’ve reported about Oprah’s role in bringing Henrietta Lacks’ story to the screen. We posted the trailer. And the film and Oprah’s portrayal as Henrietta Lacks’ late daughter Deborah is being lauded as particularly stellar.

And while most of the family, including Henrietta’s children Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, David Lacks Jr. and grandchildren Jeri Lacks Whye, Alfred Carter Jr., and La Tonya Carter  have been supportive and signed on as consultants for the project, there are a couple of family members who aren’t cool with it.

Henrietta’s eldest son Lawrence, who, naturally, was able to spend the most time with his mother, who was 31 when she died, feels like the project is exploitative.

According to The Ringer, in a press release from last month, Lawrence said, “It’s bad enough Johns Hopkins took advantage of us. Now Oprah, Rebecca, and HBO are doing the same thing. They’re no better than the people they say they hate.”

As his statement suggests, Lawrence takes issue with the fact that White people continue to be at the helm of benefiting from his mother’s life and death. Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for which the HBO movie is based, started the Henrietta Lacks foundation after the book was published. And Lawrence, now in his eighties, is not happy about that.

He’s never been a fan of Skloot’s and strongly resents the way his family was portrayed in the book. His father is portrayed as adulterous. The family history of child molestation, incest and abuse have also been made public, which would be hard for any family to stomach.

Lawrence told The Root, there were other things he wanted to keep secret. “There are things I wanted kept a secret,” he says. Those things, he says, are “about her personal life, about her body, what they did to her, how they did it and where they did it. These are the things that the doctor is supposed to get permission to do, and I don’t know how anybody can go in there, bring it out and publicize it of what they did to her, how they did it, what her family life was like. They exploited her very bad.”

But while Lawrence views it as exploitation, he told The Root, he can understand how his sister Deborah was grateful for Rebecca’s help in providing insight into her mother’s story.

“My sister. She don’t know my mother. Nobody know my mother but me. She would go around all the time to try to get me to tell her about her mother, but I just couldn’t talk about my mother,” he says with a tinge of sadness in his voice. Perhaps that’s how Skloot was able to win Deborah over. “I think she found out more about her mother in that book that I couldn’t tell her.”

In Lawrence’s opinion, in a perfect world, he would want Skloot to transfer control of the foundation she started in his mother’s name to him. He would also like for HBO and Oprah’s Harpo Films to each donate $10 million to the foundation to be started in his name.

It’s a wish Lawrence’s son Ron calls a stretch and one that Oprah resents. She told The New York Times: 

“I get really upset when I hear people complain [namely some members of the Lacks family] that Rebecca, or I, or HBO haven’t done anything. When one of the sons started a Henrietta Lacks Healing Center, I did make a six-figure donation to it. And we offered them to be consultants on the film, but a small portion of the family didn’t want to be a part of it. So I don’t know what they wanted other than the $10 million they wrote me asking for.

I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to now fulfill the role of the drug companies that have made billions off the cells. Do I think that her family should have benefited from that? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s my job or HBO’s job to make sure that happens? No, it’s our job to tell the story with as much integrity as possible.”

Y’all know this is the part where I love to share my opinion but I honestly don’t know about this one. I can see how Lawrence, especially as an 80-something-year-old man, would feel that his mother has been taken from him a second time in all the attention her story is receiving, a story he has chosen not to be a part of. And I can certainly understand how Oprah, who is really telling Deborah’s story, Deborah’s search for her mother with this most recent film, doesn’t feel responsible to pay the family for the money drug companies have made off of Henrietta Lacks’ body.

It’s a tricky situation that honestly include so many moving parts at this point.

Do you think Lacks’ son is deserving of money, how much and who should pay?

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and on Instagram and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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