Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Davis arrived in St. Louis an uneducated young widow and divorcee who eked out a living for herself and her daughter by taking in laundry. She was so distraught with her station in life that she experienced stress-related hair loss. She left here as Madam C.J. Walker – an entrepreneur and visionary CEO motivated by her own experience to build a brand that revolutionized the beauty industry and created opportunity for tens of thousands of black women within the workforce.
Television viewers will have the opportunity to see the story on screen thanks to the Netflix limited series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” Co-created and written by Nicole Jefferson Asher, the show was inspired by the book “On Her Own Ground,” written by Walker’s great-great granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. Netflix viewers can see how Walker managed to build a cosmetology empire that uplifted black women and created unprecedented wealth and social standing for herself.
The series stars Octavia Spencer as Walker and will be available for streaming on Friday, March 20. “Self Made” also stars Kevin Carroll, Carmen Ejogo, Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morgan, Blair Underwood and features Bill Bellamy.
For Asher and the millions who will likely tune in, the story is personal.
“Madam C. J. Walker was the black woman’s folk hero,” Asher said. “When I was a little girl getting my hair pressed, I would hear stories about Madam C. J. Walker and how she invented the hot comb. She was always somebody that I was always fascinated by – and certainly was an unsung hero who deserves to be considered among the great business minds like Rockefeller and Steve Jobs.”
As the series points out, Walker didn’t invent the hot comb. But she made that beauty tool – and others like it designed specifically for black women – widely available. That, along with other products that were sold by black women, were fully enfranchised by the Madam C. J. Walker brand.
“One of the things that I think is most significant and I think makes her different from every other capitalist is that she really was very invested in building up other women,” Asher said. “She saw the connection of how her upliftment meant that other people could rise, and black women really did need a leg up. Even the way she built her company, she really encouraged women to become self-sufficient and open their own salons. That was really masterful and takes her business acumen to a whole other level. She deserves her rightful place in history.”
The film focuses specifically on the period of her life where she starts and grows her business. In St. Louis, she became acclimated to the black hair care business from “Addie Monroe,” a thinly veiled pseudonym for Annie Malone. Walker then expanded to Indianapolis and later New York. Asher feels that “Self Made” explores the notion that not all female competition is bad – and that competitiveness made “Monroe” and Walker stronger businesswomen.
Bringing the book to the screen was something that Bundles had been working towards for two decades.
“Now is really the right time – Hollywood is more receptive to telling black women’s stories – and Octavia Spencer is really the perfect person to play her,” Asher said. “And not everybody’s story could work that way, but Madam C. J. had a life that deserved a big, imaginative telling. So, I wanted to convey that within the fabric of the actual storytelling.”
The team also made a concerted effort to create something that didn’t feel “like homework.”
“We wanted something that was a fun, exuberant, effervescent project that people will want to watch as opposed to feeling obligated to watch,” Asher said. “It was a challenge in that it was a hard period for black people. We’ve seen all of that, but we haven’t really seen how there were black people thriving despite their circumstances and really wrestling with what it meant to be the first generation of African Americans born after slavery and what their place was as black people in this country.”
Another important topic within the telling of Walker’s story was colorism. She was a brown skinned woman with coarse hair working to carve her place in a space that constantly reinforced light skin and silky hair as the desired aesthetic.
“Very early on I realized that the story of Madam C. J. Walker is the story of beauty from an African American point of view,” Asher said. “And you can’t really tell a story about black beauty without dealing with colorism.”
A pleasant surprise in telling the story came in the form of the primarily female crew that came together to create “SELF MADE,” including Director Kasi Lemmons. Except for the makeup department, all the department heads for the film were women.
“That was an amazing experience and really kind of reflected the story as well to be able to work with so many dynamic, passionate women,” Asher said. “For almost all of us that was the first time we had worked with so many women. It wasn’t something that we planned, but given Madam C. J.’s message, it was very fitting as far as her message of trying to uplift women that we were able to translate that into our actual production.”
The story itself was inspiring to Asher because it serves as a reminder of the richness within the context of black history.
“I think we tend to feel it was slavery and then nothing really happened until The Civil Rights Movement,” Asher said. “The turn of the 20th century was really an amazing time and paved the way for so much the civil rights to come. People like Madam C. J. Walker, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells. It was great to be able to shed a light on that.”
Asher believes Walker should be a source of inspiration and motivation for everyone.
“She was born two years after the civil war on a plantation. She never went to school – and certainly didn’t go to business school,” Asher said. “And in her lifetime, she was able to become a millionaire. That is something that I think about every day. Especially when life gets hard – or when we have a pandemic – and in challenging times.
“I hope that everyone – and not just black women and not just black people – can take that with them. That everyone can take that strength, that resilience with them through their challenging times.”