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Portrait of Oprah Winfrey smiling.

Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a publishing and scientific sensation earlier this decade that spent 75 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list. The book told the story of an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks whose “immortal” cell line, known as HeLa, came from her cervical cancer cells in 1951. Ms. Skloot, as both narrator and author, traced the afterlife of these cells: HeLa emerged as one of the most widely used lines in medical research and helped establish the multibillion-dollar vaccine industry, cancer treatment and in vitro fertilization industry. This was all done without the knowledge of, consent from or any compensation paid to Lacks’s family as it struggled with racism and poverty in Baltimore.

The movie adaptation, which debuts on HBO on April 22, takes a different storytelling approach, focusing on the lives of Lacks’s children, particularly her daughter Deborah, played by Oprah Winfrey. George C. Wolfe, the movie’s director and co-writer, said that he shifted the point of view away from Ms. Skloot (Rose Byrne) to Deborah because he... see more