When director DeMane Davis heard a project based on the life of turn-of-the-century beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker was in the works, she had to be involved. And she wasn’t alone.
"This was a series with only four episodes, up against jobs with 22,” Davis says. “People turned those down because they wanted to honor Madam.”
“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker,” debuting Friday on Netflix, stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as Sarah Breedlove, the woman known as Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black female self-made millionaire in the United States. Madam’s namesake hair-care brand filled the much-needed gap in the market, making her one of the best-known entrepreneurs and philanthropists of her time. Davis directs the final two episodes of the star-packed series, focused on the height of Madam’s success and the continued trials and tribulations faced by her and her family as their fortune continues to rise.
Davis’s directing credentials include the 2001 film “Lift” with Kerry Washington and episodes of Ava DuVernay’s "Queen Sugar” and Shonda Rhimes’s ABC drama “How to Get Away With Murder.” But in between shoots, Roxbury native Davis still calls Boston home. She spoke by phone to discuss the upcoming series, Madam’s legacy, and Washington’s life-changing gift.
Q. How did you get involved with the project?
A. I’m a firm believer in the power of positive thought. I was a pessimist for many, many years, but then I decided to put what I want into the universe and say it out loud. When I heard about this project, I started to say, “I want to work on it.” I started to tell people. My agent said, “Let’s talk about what happens if you don’t get this.” And I was like, “Nope! I’m getting ‘Madam C.J. Walker.’ ”
Q. Did you, by any chance, abide by “The Secret”?
A. I did read [Rhonda Byrne’s] “The Secret.” I read it late. But also, I read Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life,” which I recommend to everyone. I wasn’t ready for it the first time. Kerry Washington gave it to me after “Lift.” It says you have to forgive everyone you’re upset with, and I went “Nope!” and threw it across the room. It stayed there for months until I picked it up again. Years later, it’s so helpful. It has a lot to do with positivity. It costs you nothing to choose the positive thought. Everyone else can say negative things, but let them come from someone else, not yourself.
Q. It takes a while to train your brain to feel that way, but once you do it, it can feel like a muscle.
A. That’s just it. If you train yourself to say, “It’s never going to work out," when it doesn’t work out, it feels good because you were right. It’s the worst! So start with, “It’s going to be great. It’s going to happen.” Even if I hadn’t gotten “Madam,” I would have put my intent out there. Who knows what could have become of that.
Q. I think sometimes, particularly for women, it can be really hard to set your intent and state what you want. It can feel really risky.
A. Also, I think women have so many more roles than men do. You’re the cook, cleaner, mother, wife, sister, secretary, support system. We have all these we are born thinking we are, and that confuses what we actually want to do and who we actually want to be. Listen to that inner voice and spend quiet time thinking, “What is it I want?” Write that down. Nurture it.
Q. That’s a theme we see with Madam and her daughter A’Lelia (Tiffany Haddish) — expectations of society and family versus what you really want. Did anything about Madam’s story resonate with you?
A. The whole thing resonates with me. My mother worked two jobs and went to night school, so I had a living legend in my house who hustled. So I thought, “That’s what I need to do, I need to work on many things all the time to achieve what it is I want to do.” That’s my role model. And Madam is an even bigger role model. Her daughter was growing up in her shadow, being told “You’re my daughter. You have to do all these things I want you to do.” For A’Lelia, she had to get to the point of standing up and saying, “No, this is what I want to do with my life.”
Q. Knowing this was such a passion project and what Madam’s story means to so many people, is there anything you felt was integral to preserve? Anything you wanted to be so careful with?
A. The classic shot of her in the Ford Model T. That was something where we knew we’ve got to get this right.
Q. One of the things that feels so universal is how beauty can bring women together. The beauty industry has been under scrutiny, for a lot of good reasons. But sometimes beauty is something women can bond over and feel good about. Has learning more about Madam’s story changed your opinion of beauty at all?
A. With Madam, it was about practicality. Half of the Black women in St. Louis were washerwomen. They did hard labor and tied up their hair to do it. They didn’t have indoor plumbing. You’re talking about the practical things that lead to, “I can’t get a job because I am keeping my hair under a scarf because it’s dirty. And now I can support my family.”
Madam has her own hair story. Her hair is falling out so she creates a product that grows her hair. But she has indoor plumbing so she tells women, “Come to me, I’ll do your hair for free.” It’s brilliant. She taught them to better take care of themselves so they could get better jobs. Then she gave them businesses and continued to invest in them.
For me, I went natural two years ago while working on “Queen Sugar.” I’ve never felt stronger, prouder, more assured. I can do great stuff with it. That can bind us together. It’s about finding your way, what makes the most sense for you.
SELF MADE: INSPIRED BY THE LIFE OF MADAM C.J. WALKER
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, Carmen Ejogo, Blair Underwood, Garrett Morris, Kevin Carroll, Bill Bellamy, Zahra Bentham, Mouna Traoré. On Netflix, streams March 20.
Interview was edited and condensed. E-mail Rachel Raczka at firstname.lastname@example.org.