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Oprah Winfrey Stars in Two Films That Address HIV


Oprah stars in two films that observe the impact of HIV on the black community.

Oprah Winfrey is a featured actress in two films whose storylines focus in on black women and HIV. Lee Daniels is remaking the 1983 Oscar-winning film Terms of Endearment and Winfrey also starred in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as Deborah Lacks— as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks. In his remake of Terms, Lee Daniels swaps out cancer for HIV as the main illness that drives the plot to tell the stories of women, especially black women who are positive and where the virus has been transmitted from their black male partners. Black women are five times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV than any other race. Black women also are most vulnerable to not receiving the best treatment for HIV, although Lack's famous HeLa cells are responsible for many developments in the treatment of HIV.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells advanced modern medicine in a huge way. She died of cervical cancer and her cells were taken without her knowledge and used for research. While remarkable research was done, the way John Hopkins went about obtaining them remains highly unethical. Lack’s cells and body were just another example of how the bodies of black people — especially black women, have been victims to science throughout history. Lacks and Terms  depicts another aspect of what DuBois called the problem of black bodies: that is the discrimination that black people have faced over time in getting adequate healthcare and insuring overall health and well being in the community. In Lack's case it is vis a vis the descendants of Lack’s family and the subsequent research done by John Hopkins University on them to create genetic markers on the HeLa cells. Hopkins has atoned, not to everyone's satisfaction, by dedicating a health institute for the treatment of African Americans in her name.

Black bodies have been used as guinea pigs for medical research throughout history. As recently as the last 20 years Black women were still being sterilized in North Carolina. Black women in America have known the history of violence on our bodies from enslavement to the present. While most people are aware of North Carolina’s sterilization abuse, some may not be aware of recent sterilization practices over the last several years with female inmates in California. The history of modern medicine in the United States is in many ways intertwined with the history of black health in this country. Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu in an article for Stat News reflects on her experience in medical school and what Henrietta Lack’s story brought to light for her: thoughts on trust. She states that diversity amongst medical providers would help move towards a solution to this problem, “Increasing diversity among medical providers is certainly part of the change needed to earn the trust of minority communities. For example, when patients identify with their doctors, the relationships between them are not only more trusting, but patients are more satisfied with their care and more likely to adhere to their doctor’s advice. But as a medical student, I worried that a diversified workforce wouldn’t be meaningful without the recognition and desire on the part of my colleagues to deal with their own issues with racism."

This is true on so many levels including when thinking about who is telling the stories of the violence against black women’s bodies. Science writer Rebecca Skloot is a white woman who faced an uphill battle to earn the trust of Henrietta’s family to tell her story. Although her work is remarkable — she founded the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, whose mission is to address the mistreatment that has occurred — suspicion and question of intent is a conversation still being discussed within the black community and the media in general as she on the surface appears to fit the all too common trope of "The White Savior Narrative." Skloot however does everything to avoid these pratfalls by emphasizing the agency that she helps foster among  the Lacks' children so they may find their voices. Director Wolfe tells The Bustle, "There's something that happens when Rebecca meets the tornado that is Deborah Lacks," says Wolfe. "Despite all the things that have happened to [her], Deborah does not view herself as a victim. Nor is she without power, nor is she without agency. What she doesn't have is access... And, also, Deborah has this sense of, 'Sometimes, I have a little bit of anxiety that might erupt. Therefore, the trust that I have for you today might not be there tomorrow.' So, to me, I think it's a much more mercurial, complicated, and, hopefully on some level, dangerous relationship."

Daniels is the Oscar nominated fillmaker and producer of such critical and commercial hits as Monster's BallPrecious, The Paper Boy, The Butler and the highly popular FOX series Empire.

Wolfe is the world renowned former Artistic Director of the The Public Theater in New York City. where he shepherded legendary Broadway shows including the AIDS opera Angels in America as well as Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk which was choreographed by Savion Glover. Other endeavors in his repertoire feature various works telling stories that center black people and black histories and make it possible for new and emerging Black artists to continue telling stories.  Inspired by Skloot’s work, he's made a remarkable film from the book. In a conversation with Variety he stated about tackling Lacks, “I felt ‘Don’t sleep, don’t eat, just do it now,’ ”.

It’s so important for Black people to own and write the stories of our own histories. With people like Wolfe and Daniels as stewards of these projects, perhaps we will see more accurate, relatable, and relevant depictions of how this epidemic impacts the black community.  

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