We attended a panel and early AAFCA screening of Netflix’s new series, Self Made: Inspired By The Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
The pilot episode starts with rich black and white photography of women in an array of hairstyles. Starting in St. Louis circa 1908, Walker starts with telling her compelling hair journey from selling hair growing ointment for $.50 a tin.
“Seems like I was born to struggle,” she says, reflecting on losing her hair during an abusive relationship. The tumultuous life as a wife to an alcoholic husband essentially leads the self-made millionaire to her destiny.
The series is modernesque, which makes it original, and with a current feel to the musical score, along with a timely and relevant title. It feels less like a lesson through an old history book, and more like a series that will capture the attention of today’s binge-watching crowd.
The series stars Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, Blair Underwood as Charles James Walker, Tiffany Haddish as Lelia, and Carmen Ejogo as Addie.
There’s a change whenever Madam Walker is faced with adversity. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but she rises above the self-doubt in a transparent way. Most of those scenes are transitioned by use of boxing matches, which executive producer, Nicole Asher Jefferson says is birthed from the epic Jack Jackson fight. “It was called the fight of the century,” she says, “and that’s where the great white hope slogan comes from and the idea that Jack Johnson was fighting this white man. So many black people put their hopes and dreams and aspirations of a whole generation into the outcome of this fight, and so I started to think about that in terms of Madam C.J. and how she had invested all of her hopes and dreams in this fight both internally and externally. The internal fight of having the confidence, the strength, the resilience and the fortitude to keep going when people were telling her she’s crazy and didn’t have any money, or access. And then the larger fight as women and we as black people were experiencing in America at that time. That kind of crystallized in my mind as seeing her in the ring. It’s one thing to say she was a woman ahead of her time or that she was up against all these odds, but I really wanted to try to find visual ways to reinforce that on an emotional and thematic level.”
Once Madam C.J. Walker’s new business is up and running, she is advised to add in her personal story, to have heart, which seemed to be the key in winning over customers.
Octavia Spencer has such a gift of saying things without speaking as she plays Madam Walker. She represents a woman who was born free shortly after the Civil War, married at 14, pregnant at 15, and widowed by 20, describing what it was like to fend for herself and her baby. Her mind is set that she won’t return to laundry work, and she talks authentically about the struggle of caring for her own hair when there are so many other pressing responsibilities.
“It was a conversation that we started well before even going into prep and prep production,” executive producer, Elle Johnson says. “It was something that we knew we really had to focus on and get the right people to be a part of it. There’s a really fantastic artist up in Toronto who is a genius. And we wanted to work with her. She’s another person who was like, I’m putting everything on hold because I’m doing this. It really came through for us in terms of making the hair look authentic. And Nicole was meticulous about what the hair would look like in every phase. I mean, I think in episode one, she had 14 wigs just to show the journey that Madam C.J. went through.”
Janine Sherman Barrois: “And we were very clear, we will get dragged if her hair is not right.”
The first female self-made millionaire is relevant because of her strength in a time designed to break her. One of Octavia Spencer’s lines is, “If I can help one person, I’m lifting us all up,” which embodies the sisterhood she worked hard to build within her company. In the panel discussion, Kasi Lemmons talks about the women-led meetings that took place during the planning and writing stages of Netflix’s Self Made.
Kasi Lemmons: “We’ve had meetings where there were only women. It’s the first experience in my life, and I’ve been working for a very long time. We would have meetings where the whole board table was only women…It was great. [For me], it started with Harriet, which was also made by women, but it was something I took incredible pride in. I was always trying to take selfies (like how can we get all of us in one frame if I take a picture) because it was so momentous. So I took absolute pride in it, and it was terrifically appropriate.”
Elle Johnson: “I’ve been working in this industry for so long, and for so long we’ve been the only person in the room. And I came up with Janine as a staff writer, but we had never worked together so [when the opportunity came I said], yes, of course, I want to do this no matter what it takes to get this done. And I feel like that helped contribute to getting the project made because that’s incredibly difficult even when you have access and you have Netflix behind you.”
Another line from the show is, “Ain’t nothing a colored woman can’t do if she put her mind to it,” and it seems like the collaboration with these women, and the help of A’Lelia Bundles’ biography, On Her Own Ground, the writers and producers were able to pull off an extraordinary show that is both relevant and entertaining, while preserving the integrity of an iconic historical moment. A’Lelia Bundles says, “Having written this book 20 years ago and having been doing research about this for 50 years, it’s really great to know that so many more people are going to know about Madam CJ Walker. Everybody here has worked really hard to make this happen and bring it to the screen, so I’m very excited that more people are going to be talking about her.”
Nicole Asher Jefferson: “When I first was approached about the project, Octavia was involved. And I’ve done a few biopics and worked on a few biopics that haven’t got made and Madam C.J. Walker’s story really struck me as: this is a woman who is a visionary, and who is ahead of her time. And it really needed to be told in a way that reflected that, not just for the sake of doing that, but to really get us deeper into her imagination and to on another level to show what was special about her, what made her unique and what led her to do what no one had done before. This is a woman who didn’t go to school, she didn’t go to business school, she didn’t even go to school-school. She had to teach herself to read, she was born two years after the Civil War, and she ended up becoming a millionaire in her lifetime. So that takes a tremendous amount of imagination. And so we wanted to use fantasy elements, realism, all these things to put the viewer in her mind.”
Janine Sherman Barrois: “I had been running Claws when I got Nicole’s pitch and when I read it I said, this is genius. It’s brilliant, it’s vibrant, it’s not a didactic piece, it’s going to be fresh… and there has to be a way to tell these stories to get people and new generations to actually want to sit through it. And I just thought Nicole wrote a piece that was undeniable, and we all wanted to be involved in it.”