Black women have been mistreated by their physicians since the advent of the U.S. medical system. One of the most well-publicized cases of medical mistreatment was that of Henrietta Lacks. She was a Black woman who was misused by a team of doctors, inadvertently becoming the mother of modern medicine in the process. Her unlikely story changed the world forever…

On August 1, 1920, Loretta Pleasant, later called Henrietta, was born in Roanoke, Virginia. She went to live with her grandfather in 1924, where she lived with her cousin, David “Day” Lacks. The two would eventually marry and have two children.

They moved near Baltimore and the Bethlehem Steel plant for Day’s job. Henrietta cared for their five children. People described her as kind, fun-loving, and pretty. Henrietta only stood 5 feet tall but had a much larger presence.

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Just after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta noticed a “knot on her womb” and visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in early 1951. Like many other Black women in the ’50s, she was nervous about trusting the medical institution.

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The hospital was segregated at the time and would remain so until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time, Black people worried that they wouldn’t receive the same level of care as white patients or would be subjected to secret medical experimentation. 

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Rumors circulated that Johns Hopkins surgeons were performing secret hysterectomies on Black women. These rumors weren’t as random as you’d think: The “Father of Modern Gynecology,” James Marion Sims, did this for years to enslaved Black women against their knowledge.

There were other government mandated eugenic programs to shrink the size of the Black population — 30 states had them from the 1900s until the ’70s. These would sterilize Black women without their knowledge. The procedures were permanent.

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This was only a very small part of a much larger subject. But, back to Henrietta. She was biopsied and diagnosed with cervical cancer. Her tumor looked unique to her doctor, Howard Jones, and cells from it were removed for research, all without her knowledge or permission.

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A second doctor, George Otto Gey, took more samples. Unbeknownst to him, he collected what would become the HeLa immortal cell line. While George’s research was flourishing, Henrietta’s cancer was quickly draining her health.

She returned to Johns Hopkins in August and insisted the hospital admit her for treatment. Henrietta spent her remaining time in the hospital, until her death on October 4th. She was 31. When her body was autopsied, the team discovered that her cancer had metastasized throughout her body.

George studied the HeLa cells, which were named for their unknowing donor HEnrietta LAcks. He was the director of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins University and searched for cancer cells that continually divided and came from the same person.

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George believed this would lead him to a cure for cancer. The HeLa cells were special. Instead of eventually dying, they continued to divide. They were immortal. George claimed they were from a patient named “Helen Lane” to obscure his true source.

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George distributed HeLas to his scientist colleagues and within two years, they were produced on a major level and led to revolutionary scientific advances. In 2017, 142 countries have used the cells. 

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Researchers have earned two Nobel prizes, been given 17,000 patents, and written 110,000 papers using these immortal cells stolen from a Black woman, who earned her title of the “mother of modern medicine” at a steep cost.

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While the scientific community celebrated its advances, no one bothered to tell the Lack family anything about the cells. They didn’t learn anything until 1973, two years after the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology revealed that Henrietta was the true origin of the cells, not Helen Lane.

Lacks Family / The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

The Lacks have never received any kind of compensation for the use of Henrietta’s genetic material. She was buried in an unmarked grave, while researchers got rich exploiting her body. And in the ’70s, scientists contacted the Lacks children about drawing their blood.

Before visiting the family, physicians called Day to ask for his permission. He was extremely averse to the idea. Eventually he agreed, but researchers never informed him what the blood was being used for. The family thought they were being tested for an unknown disease.

Day was irate about the medical industry’s complete lack of empathy to his family and took legal advice from Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, supposedly a distant relative. Keenan told the family he was a doctor and lawyer who could help them sue Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Keenan was a fake. This came out during the Hopkins trial, where he threatened to sue the Lacks instead. There were also plenty of tell-all journalistic novels and movies that dramatized Henrietta’s life and didn’t treat her story with respect.

The Lacks family is still dealing with HeLa cells and Henrietta’s legacy. They’ve never been paid for these groundbreaking cells, but they were at least able to create something special from this terrible situation: the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

Lacks Family / The Henrietta Lacks Foundation

The organization aims to “provide financial assistance to individuals in need, and their families, who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.” So far, the organization has received 50 grants.

Some historians have compared Lacks to another underappreciated Black woman in another field. Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, rose from poverty on a Louisiana plantation to become one of the great business magnates of industrial America. She faced incredible odds.

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Madam C. J. Walker had a difficult upbringing on the plantation. By the time she was seven, her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, had both died, leaving her an orphan.

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Luckily, she had five older siblings and stayed with her sister, Louvenia, and her family. They moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Sarah picked cotton and did housework. During this time, she hated living with her brother-in-law.

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When she was only 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams. They had one child together Lelia — who later changed her name to A’Lelia Walker. Moses died in 1887. So Sarah sought a new start in St. Louis with her brothers.

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Sarah earned $1.50 a day doing laundry and used this money to send herself and Leila to school. A few years into this routine, Sarah began losing her hair. She had a scalp condition and had few options for haircare products. That gave her an idea.

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She started with Poro hair products created by Annie Turnbo Malone, a Black entrepreneur. Sarah sold Poro products for a while and planned her next move. For about a year she experimented with making her own hair-growth products.

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Sarah found love again during this time with Charles Joseph (C. J.) Walker, a sales and advertising specialist. The two married in 1906, and Charles helped Sarah with her product marketing and business strategies.

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She changed her name officially to Madam C. J. Walker and released her first product: Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. For 18 months, she traveled across the southern U.S. selling the serum door-to-door.

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Another one of her sales tactics was doing product demonstrations in churches. “She was one of the women who was a pioneer in a multimillion-dollar cosmetics and hair care industry,” A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter and biographer, said.

Madam C. J. also used before-and-after photos to demonstrate the hair growers’ abilities. These tactics were incredibly effective. Tins sold for 50 cents each, and in just two years, she was earning the equivalent of $150,000 every year.

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One of her favorite sayings was, “There would be no hair growing industry if I hadn’t invented it.” And she’s right. Though her original formula was lost, we know it had coconut oil, beeswax, petrolatum (similar to petroleum jelly), copper sulfate, precipitated sulfur and a violet scent.

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The secret ingredient was likely the MSM sulfur. A 2019 study found this material increases keratin development, which supports hair and fingernail health. And along with growth solution, there was also a special vegetable shampoo, and Glossine, a proto-heat protectant product.

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Next, Madam C. J.’s company, Walker incorporated “beauty culturists” to help sell her products in large cities. During this time, Madam C. J. caught her husband having an affair and divorced him.

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She lived in Indianapolis for a bit before settling in Harlem. Madam C. J. was in the middle of a Black cultural explosion and befriended Ida B. Wells, W. E. B DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Booker T. Washington.

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Teaming up with her daughter, A’Leila, the two opened a fancy salon with Doric columns, parquet flooring, velvet seats, and a grand piano to greet guests as they walked in. She hosted a national convention in 1917 for her beauty culturists where she both inspired them to sell and support the charitable Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association.

Madam Walker Family Archives

Madam C. J. was generous with her wealth. She gave money to Black colleges and to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund. “She visited the White House in 1917 with a group to try to persuade President [Woodrow] Wilson to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime,” Aleia Bundles said.

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An estimated 4,742 people were lynched. In 2020, lynching still isn’t a federal crime. For 120 years the American government has tried and failed to pass national anti-lynching legislation.

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Moving past that dreadful fact — in 1918 Madam C. J. moved into the gorgeous Villa Lewaro, an Italianate mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. It was 20,000 square feet and has 34 rooms. Vertner Woodson Tandy, a Black architect designed the home.

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Unfortunately, the next year, Madam C. J. Walker passed away. W.E.B. DuBois offered these words in her obituary: “It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C. J. Walker.”

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The Villa Lewaro estate is now a National Historic Landmark and has been restored by Ambassador Harold E. Doley Jr. and his wife Helena. The couple lived in the mansion from 1993 until 2018. And Walker’s legacy lives on.

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Madam C. J. employed 40,000 Black women and men. She founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. Even in her will, she left two-thirds of her future net profits to charity. Her success inspired women of color in other fields too.

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Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895, the daughter of two formerly enslaved people, her father had also served in the Civil War. Her mother was a gospel singer, so their home was full of music. From an early age, Hattie discovered her own vocal gifts.

Along with her siblings, Hattie performed in a variety of minstrel shows. She honed her dance skills, steadily booked gigs, and attempted to navigate the deeply segregated entertainment scene in Denver as a Black performer in the 1920s. 

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After years on the grind performing and singing the blues, Hattie’s talent and hard work led to her first historical achievement. She became the first Black woman ever to sing on a radio broadcast, but that was hardly the last record she’d set.

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On the road to success were countless barriers blocking Hattie’s progress as a Black entertainer. Her opportunities were limited so she created ways to display her talent. While working as a washroom attendant, the owner heard Hattie sing and hired her as their first nonwhite performer.

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From there. Hattie set her sights on Hollywood. She moved to Los Angeles to live with several of her siblings. Not long after relocating Hattie and her sister booked parts on a radio called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour.

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In the film industry, Hattie landed roles almost exclusively as a maid while working part-time as a maid herself. Over the span of her career, Hattie had 74 domestic laborer roles that she was credit for, though due to discrimination, much of her work remains uncredited.

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Membership with the Screen Actors Guild in 1934 elevated the roles within Hattie’s reach. That same year she sang a duet with Will Rogers in her biggest part to date for the film Judge Priest. That led to larger parts, which were nearly all as domestic workers.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Throughout the ‘30s Hattie developed friendships with A-list costars like Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford despite the open racism she faced on set. She was less popular with the NAACP who felt her roles played into and perpetuated racist stereotypes.

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At the time, the NAACP was actively encouraging Black actors to boycott roles featuring harmful depictions of Black people. Not only that, they asked actors to avoid roles that showed Black people who were content or happy with lives limited by racist ideals.

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Hattie disagreed with the critics who said her roles reinforced harmful stereotypes. She countered that she’d created positive change by being on set and having direct racial conversations with filmmakers. Her common response on the issue was, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

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It was her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind that was Hattie’s most high profile and certainly the most steeped in controversy. The film was an instant success, but her role as a house slave wasn’t universally well received.

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In fact, from the moment the film adaptation of the book was greenlit, the NAACP was communicating with the filmmakers to make sure racial slurs were not going to be permitted in the Civil-War era movie.

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While Hattie opposed the negative views of her work, she couldn’t deny that her achievements were laced with oppression, evident in the fact that Black people, herself included, were forbidden from attending the premiere of Gone With the Wind.

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Despite the controversy of her position, Hattie McDaniel made history as the very first Black recipient of an Academy Award. She took home the statue for Best Supporting Actress for the role of Mammy on February 29, 1940.

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Sadly, though, even her Oscar victory was marred by discrimination. The dinner venue for the Academy Awards was a segregated establishment. The film producers had to convince the hotel to allow Hattie to be on-premise, let alone allow her a seat at an isolated table. 

Hattie’s win was a sign of progress that many felt came at the expense of Black civil rights efforts. Her career moved forward with similar patterns. She starred in a few movies, though her biggest success was the radio program and sitcom spin-off, Beulah.

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In 1952, Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer, but she had made sure her prized Oscar statuette was going to a place of high distinction — Howard University. Though after Hattie’s death, the journey her award took remains shrouded in mystery.

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While some say they can trace the award, that looked much different from today’s golden figure, back to an estate sale, the details are murky about who physically had it in their possession. What is certain, is that Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar was at Howard University in 1961.

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Sometime between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the award vanished. To this day, the whereabouts of Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar remains unknown. There’s a theory that it was moved into storage for its own protection and is simply lost in University storage.

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Others say it could’ve been stolen as a protest against what the award represented, a character with positive perceptions of the segregated South, which complicates the legacy. It wasn’t for another 23 years that a fellow Black actor, Sidney Poitier would receive the same honor.

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Audiences knew Poitier was a pure talent onscreen once those cameras started rolling, but many didn’t know his secret hidden talent: The guy spoke fluent Russian! This would have made him an awesome James Bond villain.

During a visit to Mississippi as a young man, Poitier and his friend had a terrifying encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. It was so bad Poitier slept with a gun during the filming of In the Heat of the Night.

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After first arriving to New York City, a poor Poitier held a job as a dishwasher. During this period of time, a waiter he developed a friendship with taught him how to read.

While No Way Out is Poitier’s first film credit, he worked uncredited for several years beforehand. He played an extra in a film called Sepia Cinderella, and performed in three short films while enlisted in the military.

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Poitier entered the United States Army in 1943, but after a few years of working in a mental ward, he wanted out. So, he actually faked insanity to no avail, but soon after, he was actually released anyway.

Many people think the actor’s name has Haitian origins, but the name was actually brought to the Bahamas’ Cat Island by an English plantation owner named Charles Leonard Poitier.

The role that really got audiences talking about Poitier’s talent was in the film Blackboard Jungle. Even though Poitier was supposed to play a high schooler, he was actually 28 years old at the time.

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Poitier’s directorial debut was in 1972 with the film Buck and the Preacher. Although it wasn’t the smash box-office hit Poitier hoped for, his work was a unique take on westerns utilizing an all-black cast.

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Before Bill Cosby was outed as a total creep, Poitier actually starred alongside him in three different crime-comedy movies he also directed, including Uptown Saturday Night. If only he knew the secrets his sidekick held…

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One unprecedented scene Poitier shot appears in In the Heat of the Night. In one scene, he slapped a white man! Showing a black man hit a white man was unheard of at the time.

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Many people have no idea why Poitier wasn’t nominated for the classic film In the Heat of the Night, but it had nothing to do with his talent. He was up for awards for three films, which made selection hard.

Poitier garnered two massive achievements early on in his career. He was the first black man to earn a best actor nomination in the late ’50s, and then a few years later won for Lilies of the Field.

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One of the most famous comedy movies of all time was Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Well, Sidney Poitier actually directed it! It was so successful, it made ten times the budget!

Poitier joined Disney’s Board of Directors in 1995 and received a shoutout in The Lion King. Pumba’s line, “They call me MISTER PIG!” is based on the line, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” from In the Heat of the Night.

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A strong supporter of civil rights, Poitier was one of several famous faces who attended the March on Washington rally. He joined Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Charlton Heston to listen to Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

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One of the most unique works of art Poitier ever produced was an album titled Poitier Meets Plato. Throughout the album, Poitier reads excerpts of the writings of the famous philosopher Plato.

Are you a fan of rap? Well, Busta Rhymes actually gave a shoutout to Poitier in his music video for the song “Gimme Some More.” He not only holds up an image, but he drops the iconic actor’s name.

Poitier was given the ultimate title of knighthood in 1974. Because he held citizenship in the Bahamas, his official knighted title was “Knight Commander within the Order of the British Empire.”

The last movie Poitier ever starred in was a film with some name power. The Jackal starring Richard Gere was a hit at the box office successfully, even though critics didn’t offer the kindest reviews.

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The very first credited acting role Poitier earned was for the film No Way Out. Even back then, Poitier knew he was a part of something special: he, with the help of other black Americans, was about to change the world.

One of those helpers? There may not have been a mountain high enough to keep Marvin Gaye from reaching the top of Motown music success, but the peaks in his personal life were nearly impossible to scale. And they would come to define his legacy.

On April 2, 1939, Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (yes, without the e) was born in Washington, D.C., to a loving mother named Alberta and a horrifically abusive father, who was also the church minister. Surrounded by violence, Marvin was drawn to music at a young age.

He discovered his talent for singing when he was young. He could deliver a four-octave vocal range, and he performed in church choirs to showcase his talent. People began to take notice of the young boy’s voice.

Even though Marvin Jr. found solace in music, his home life was made miserable by his father, Marvin Sr. Constant verbal and physical abuse even gave his son suicidal thoughts. So, early in his adult life, Marvin made a bold move to rebel.

Taking inspiration from a man he greatly admired, “The King of Soul” Sam Cooke, Marvin added an “e” to the end of his name to distinguish him from his father. From there, he would continue to grow.

After entering high school, Marvin associated with music every chance he could. He joined the glee club and performed in several doo-wop groups. At age 17, Marvin made an uncharacteristic decision no one saw coming.

After being kicked out of his house by his father for the umpteenth time, he figured joining the military would help. However, he hated the menial day-to-day tasks, so he actually faked mental illness to get discharged.

Not long after Marvin left the military, he met his first wife, Anna Gordy, who was the daughter of his producer. At the time, Marvin was in a band called Harvey and the New Moonglows, but he soon released his first solo album.

Unfortunately, his album titled The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye didn’t take to audiences like he wanted, which definitely was a huge hit to his ego. However, he still had the support of his partner Anna.

The lack of success from his first solo album meant he had to return to life as a session musician to pay the bills, but he still had confidence he’d find the right music for a mass audience.

Funny enough, Marvin found ways to earn a living that didn’t involve music at all: movies! He starred in The Ballad of Andy Crocker and then Chrome and Hot Leather shortly after. Music, though, was where his heart lay.

Marvin eventually did begin cranking out successful songs, and people started listening in droves. In fact, you might remember the incident in 2015 when Pharrell and Robin Thicke were successfully sued for plagiarizing the song “Got to Give it Up.”

Marvin’s growing success, however, led to a downward spiral. Copious drugs, divorce, depression, and a horrific relationship with his dad caused serious problems. Although his music was garnering tons of positive attention, he was growing quite unstable.

At one point, cocaine had Marvin so paranoid about people hurting him that he actually wore a bullet-proof vest throughout one of his tours, as well as hiring armed guards to follow him everywhere.

Marvin finally hit rock bottom in 1981. In order to combat everything that was happening, he took time off, traveling to Ostend, Belgium. The city was so proud to have him they eventually built a statue in his honor.

Luckily, Marvin managed to overcome most of the struggles plaguing him throughout his career. Sadly, his 1983 performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at an NBA All-Star game was last time anyone saw him on television.

On April 1, 1983, during a vicious verbal spat with his ailing mother and father, Marvin physically confronted his dad. Moments later, his father returned with a gun and murdered Marvin. It was a tragedy that rocked the music world.

Marvin was survived by three children, one adopted son with Anna Gordy, and two conceived by his second wife, Janice Hunter. His daughter Nona was the most successful, following her father into music, but also starring in Hollywood films, as well.