The rise of hair-care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker is a true American success story, one of unlikely triumph against overwhelming odds and remarkable courage in the face of adversity.
Born in 1867 on the same Delta, La., plantation where her parents had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War, Walker went on to become one of America’s first female self-made millionaires. Her empire: a pioneering brand of hair products for Black women, brought to market and popularized despite resistance from the deeply segregated and sexist society around her.
Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” (streaming Friday) finds Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) playing this cultural icon across a nearly 20-year period, during which she went from uneducated laundress to business mogul.
“L.A. Law” star Blair Underwood plays her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, with “Girls Trip” actress Tiffany Haddish co-starring as her daughter, Lelia, and “Selma” co-lead Carmen Ejogo taking on the role of Addie Monroe, Walker’s longtime business rival. The four-part miniseries is adapted from “On Her Own Ground,” a book written by Walker’s own great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
In approaching “Self Made,” Spencer — who spoke by phone about the project this past Friday — was driven by twin goals of representation and accuracy, aiming to bring Walker’s story to life with a truly diverse group of Black female creatives. Accordingly, “Harriet” co-writer/director Kasi Lemmons and Boston’s own DeMane Davis (“Queen Sugar”) were hired to tackle two episodes apiece. Spencer, who also executive-produced, describes the series as a “labor of love” — as well as a story she’s dreamed of telling for decades.
Q. When did you first learn about Madam C.J. Walker and her hair-care empire?
A. My mother taught us about Madam C.J. when we were growing up. She’d use her as an example of a standard that we could achieve. Like Madam C.J. — and I shouldn’t say like her, exactly, because she was born to slaves as a free woman, as a person of meager beginnings — but we came from humble beginnings as well. She was able to overcome insurmountable obstacles to achieve the level of success she achieved. I knew about her early on, and I’d always yearned to bring her story to film or television.
Q. When did you first become involved with this series?
A. Mark and Christine Holder of Wonder Street had the rights to the book, and they approached me. I should note they’re Caucasian producers, and I expressed that I would need African-American female storytellers to bring this story to life. They agreed, so we partnered with Spring Hill Entertainment, [founded by] LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Warner Bros. became involved, after which point we sold it to Netflix. It had a wonderful synergy from the outset, because all of us were collaborative in ensuring we tried to tell as much as Madam’s story as we could.
Q. And the series does cover a lot of ground.
A. And [yet,] we only cover an 18-year span. We introduce you to her, and after you meet her through us, you might be inclined to take a deeper dive and read her great-great-granddaughter’s book. There’s so much we weren’t able to get to in four hours. She lived a very varied life and was prolific in what she was able to achieve.
Q. You’ve played real-life figures from history before, most notably NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures.” How does that process differ from playing a fictionalized character?
A. You know, when it’s a person who actually existed, that there are responsibilities to playing them that extend beyond the screen. For all of us, we were all cognizant of the fact Madam had a legacy. We wanted to be able to illuminate her contributions to the world. For me, it was about doing her justice and meditating the balance between some areas of the story that are fictionalized a little bit for cinematic purposes and not taking too many [such] liberties. Madam’s always been a part of my upbringing. I just wanted to do right by her.
Q. Some period pieces can feel overly stuffy with recreating their time and place. But there’s a lively energy to “Self Made,” from the fluid camerawork to the decidedly modern soundtrack. On set, how much did you think about that tone?
A. I’d love to take ownership of that, but that was all [co-showrunners] Janine Sherman Barrois, Elle Johnson, and [creator] Nicole Jefferson Asher. I was a little afraid of how stylized it was going to be, until we executed it, but it did make it more exciting that it wasn’t going to be a straight-up, run-of-the-mill biopic. That will attract younger people to have a different viewing experience, I think, than this kind of story would usually provide.
Q. Animated short “Hair Love” – about a Black father learning to style his daughter’s hair for the first time – won an Oscar earlier this year. At Sundance, “Dear White People” director Justin Simien unveiled his new film, “Bad Hair,” a horror-comedy exploring the ways Black women’s hair can be politicized and appropriated, even feared. What do you make of Hollywood’s increasing attention to Black hair?
A. What’s interesting to me is that “Self Made” is about Black hair, because that’s what she built her empire on. But it’s not really about hair. It’s about empowerment and beauty, about Black women not having access, about products actually not even being made for Black women to feel beautiful. From that confidence and inner beauty comes empowerment. Lots of stories are being made about hair now, but it’s not really about hair. Not to me, at least. There’s also such a focus now on Black hair in schools, how kids can wear their hair, and that really is also about empowerment, symbolically speaking.