Image via HBO/YouTube

“You’re famous. Just nobody knows it,” a woman says to her long-deceased mother in the much-anticipated HBO movie based on events that took place in Baltimore.

The speaker is Deborah Lacks, played by Oprah Winfrey. The mother is Henrietta Lacks, an African-American cancer patient at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s.

Hopkins used Henrietta Lacks’ cells to conduct research, and it helped many people. But the hospital didn’t initially identify the patient, referring to her only as HeLa.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot, is the basis for the HBO movie, which was filmed partly in Baltimore last year. The production is timely because descendants of Henrietta Lacks are currently seeking compensation for the research Hopkins conducted without her consent.

In her book, Skloot wrote about the unauthorized harvesting of cancer cells from Lacks’ body and how that led to medical breakthroughs. Lacks was born in Roanoke, Va., and later lived in Baltimore as an adult, and the cells were “cultured” from her body by Hopkins doctors for medical research.

HBO recently announced a time and date for the movie’s debut, April 22 at 8 p.m. It also issued an “official tease” preview. One scene in the tease is shot in the lobby of the historic Billings Building at Hopkins, where a large statue of Jesus Christ greets visitors. Most of the film was shot in Atlanta.

Winfrey, a former television news anchor and talk show host in Baltimore, is one of the executive producers of the HBO film. She also has a key on-screen role as the daughter Henrietta never got to know. The story is told through her eyes.

Here’s the teaser video:

YouTube video

This story has been corrected to reflect that Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Va., not Baltimore.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.