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March 18, 2020

Self-Made Inspiration

Explore the story of the first self-made woman millionaire, brought to life by a self-made director who started life in poverty and experienced many plot twists of her own.

Karen Gourlay DeLong
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix
  • Netflix

Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker brings the story of a cultural Black icon to the screen for the first time.

The highly anticipated original Netflix limited series stars Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer in the title role. DeMane Davis directed two of the episodes in the series, which is based on the book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, written by Walker's great-great granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles.

Walker was an entrepreneur who achieved success through inventing and promoting hair products tailored to fit the needs of Black women.

Despite being born to recently freed slaves, Walker conquered post-slavery racial and gender biases, personal betrayals and business rivalries as she developed her ground-breaking product, which was inspired after she lost most of her own hair due to a scalp condition.

Her product was marketed by her own trained "sales beauticians" known as Walker Women (think Avon agents). In this way, Walker's product reached more people and gave careers to many, lifting them out of typical jobs of the time in domestic and farm work.

As Walker's fortune grew, she became a philanthropist, sharing her wealth to help various causes. She was known as the wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time of her death in 1919.

Davis, who first learned about Walker in elementary school during Black history month, says, "People will be thrilled about finally seeing a story about her. It's overdue. What she's done for beauty and hair, uplifting other women, culture, race—she's always stuck in my mind."

"People really wanted to do her story right. The great thing is that people [actors and crew] gave up other, longer jobs with 12 episodes to do this one," which has 4 episodes. There were many women and people of color on the set.

"I feel lucky to honor her in some way," Davis continued. "She reminds me of my [single] mother who went to school at night while working two jobs and raising four kids alone, me the youngest," she explained.

The venerable Octavia Spencer finds the perfect match of grit and grace as Madam Walker, and Davis said that working with her was a gift. "I am in awe of Miss Octavia—and I call her that because she's a legend. She is phenomenal from take one. Her product is impeccable. Her eyes are incredible. They tell so much of the story," she says.

"I have two words about Miss Octavia. Grace and creativity. Those are attributes that you want not only in an actor but in a person. She brought that to set every single day. I adore her. I learned from her to be even more prepared and create an environment that is relaxed so that people are ready to be their best."

It's rare for anyone—white, black, man or woman—to achieve the level of financial success that Walker did. Given the backdrop and reality of her era, the story is even more astonishing.

"Madam went door to door at a time when they were still lynching black people," said Davis. "When she wasn't selling, she had boarders in her home to earn income. She still did laundry for a while as the business got underway," Davis says of the legendary figure, who didn't let setbacks stop her dreams.

"I identify with Madam," says Davis. "She inspired people and that's what I hope to do as well," Davis continued. Since producing the Indie film Black & White & Red All Over, an ensemble about Black on Black violence introduced at the Sundance Festival in 1997, she knew that she wanted to work on projects that had meaning.

For Davis, producing and directing Self Made was a dream come true. She credits the opportunity in part to an earlier job offered to her by prolific director and producer Ava DuVernay, who asked her to direct an episode of Queen Sugar. Davis believes it was that break that put her on the radar for Self Made.

DuVernay purposefully recruits first-time female directors who have never worked in TV before. "Ava gives us that opportunity. It's unheard of. It has absolutely changed the game. She gave me a career," says Davis, who notes that she strives to emulate DuVernay's style.

"[Ava] doesn't hire crew; she creates family," Davis said. "I try to recreate that on every set. My job as producing director is to make sure everyone is seen and heard. I overcommunicate so that everyone is on board."

Davis has since worked on more episodes of Queen Sugar, as well as directing episodes of ABC's Station 19, a series about firefighters.

Davis hopes that Self Made makes an impact on its audience. "I expect a lot of women to watch. I hope a lot of young girls watch. I hope that people look at [Walker] and see that their own problems are not as large as what she overcame."

Davis overcame her own humble beginnings, working hard in various jobs before becoming a writer, voice over talent and director of critically-acclaimed Indie films.

Her background may be diverse, but Davis says "it all feeds one another. I see a connection with all my experiences. Being a writer, I learned how to take information and turn it into something creative. I'm learning brevity, which is necessary for TV. Voiceovers help me understand intonation."

From the Roxberry neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, Davis' family was on welfare when she was a child. "There were times without breakfast, and lunch was a mayo sandwich. It's not the way it should be, but it's the way it was," she says without a note of bitterness.

Despite her family's struggles, Davis' mother volunteered with Project Hope for most of her life. Davis plans to open a homeless shelter in Roxberry in her mother's honor.

Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker premieres March 20 on Netflix


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