Megan McLachlan chats with director DeMane Davis of the Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker about the history behind this inspiring true story and working with star and executive producer Octavia Spencer.
Octavia Spencer stars as Madam CJ Walker in the Netflix limited series Self Made, which follows one woman’s journey from struggling with severe hair loss to becoming the first female black self-made millionaire.
Taking place in the early 1900s, the series tells the story of Madam CJ Walker, as she develops hair products that catch fire among black women living and working in St. Louis. The four-episode limited series has an amazing cast that includes Blair Underwood, Carmen Ejogo, Tiffany Haddish, Garrett Morris, and Kevin Carroll. It also boasts two female filmmakers behind the camera: Kasi Lemmons, coming off the success of the Academy Award-nominated Harriet, and DeMane Davis, best-known for her directorial work on television, which includes How To Get Away With Murder, You, and Queen Sugar (from showrunner Ava DuVernay).
Davis directs the final two episodes of the highly bingeable series, which depict how success affects Madam’s relationships, health, and ultimately the legacy she leaves behind.
I had a chance to chat with Davis about her first period project, why the story feels so timeless, and the statistic she hopes to see following when the series drops.
Awards Daily: How much did you know about this story before taking on this project? It’s such a remarkable piece of both American and African American history.
DeMane Davis: I learned about Madam CJ Walker when I was in elementary school, during Black History Month of course, and I always had an affinity for her. She stuck with me. And then my actual first job when I was 12, I was a gopher at a hair salon, so I swept up hair, took out roller sets, and got people lunches. I flirted with the idea of becoming a hair dresser for a hot minute. I got the books and looked into stuff. Then later in life, I worked as a receptionist at a salon in Boston. For me, hair is really personal. Hair is a big part of who you are, and the fact that she told this story, created this product, and made things better for so many women during that time is incredible.
AD: I found the whole thing fascinating and really empowering. What kind of research did you do?
DD: The story has inspired by A’Lelia Bundles book, On Her Own Ground, and A’Lelia Bundles is Madam’s great-great-granddaughter. That was sort of our bible. The writers used it quite a bit [screenwriters Nicole Jefferson Asher and A’Lelia Bundles]. As soon as I knew I might be working on this project, I went and got the book and read it. It’s fascinating, because you really do get a sense of what she did and how one woman really made such a big difference. Back in that time, in the late-1800s, black women in St. Louis, more than half of them were washer women—women who came in from the fields from slavery and were now washing clothes, having to hide their hair, and they also didn’t have indoor plumbing, so their hair would get worse and worse. Then, Madam came along, she was losing her hair herself, and she created a product that made her grow her own hair. Then, she went to these people and said, “I have this product. It’s about getting your hair healthy. Come to my house. I have indoor plumbing. I’ll do your hair for free.” She actually said that to a bunch of women. The fact that she did that, it allowed them to get better jobs, cause if your hair is done in that time period, you can get a better job. And also to provide for their families. And to feel better about themselves, and that’s incredible.
AD: I think the most surprising part for me was how timeless this limited series felt. This story could happen today, which is both frustrating and inspiring in ways. I know the soundtrack is more modern, but is there anything you did direction-wise to make it feel more of a story that just happens to take place in the early-1900s?
DD: That’s a good question. It feels really timeless and also just the raw emotions about what it’s like to run a business, to put everything into that business, to want so much for yourself and your family and workers and philanthropy. All of those things are relatively timeless. In the last episode, there’s a moment during a party scene, where everyone is on the lawn, and we went through who we wanted as extras. I said, OK, let’s have this many people, and I want a photographer. We were able to have three photographers there, and we had one actual period camera that worked, with the gun powder and everything. We were rehearsing for that and talking about that moment, and I said, “Everyone has to look at the camera. Everyone who can see the camera has to look at the camera.” For a moment, you could sort of think of that as a selfie. But I also think it’s just about the fact that all of these women were there, all of them know who Madam is—look at what you provided, look at your home, we believe in you. If you can see that camera, you know you’re in the photo. So I was like, “Everyone look fierce and proud.” It was interesting because it wasn’t really written in the script.
AD: Is this your first period project? What kind of new challenges did that bring about?
DD: Yes. This was my first time. And there was a lot of learning. There’s no asphalt; therefore, you’ve got to grind up something and put it down for the horses and cars for the people to go over. But you have to get the approval from the city, because is it dirt or mulch? Otherwise it could clog the sewer system. So you’ve got to figure out what that is and then you need to minimize your shots, because obviously you’re not going to be able to put mulch or dirt 6 miles down the road, to look in that direction. Of course, the FX comes into play and having a great production designer like Britt Doughty.
AD: You directed the final two episodes of the limited series. Kasi Lemmons directed the first two. I noticed that the series started with more dream sequences, like the boxing matches and musical numbers, that go away in your episodes. Was that a deliberate choice, and if so, what does that say about Sarah/Madam and her journey?
DD: In [episodes] 3 and 4, we have those dream sequences morph into the things with the Walker girls [her husband’s advertising idea] and her seeing these recurring images, like her own insecurity and what that means. Which I think makes sense because as you start to articulate what you want, and when she actually gets what she wants, then it’s like, “Oh, I have to dream bigger. What else do I want?” For her, those inner conflicts about how she looks and how that relates to if she gets the factory or bigger deal, that’s always in her conscious. That’s how those things morphed, as she made money.
AD: This series has an amazing cast. What was it like working with all of them, especially Octavia, who also served as executive producer?
DD: Octavia is one of the most talented and also one of the most gracious people I’ve ever worked with or met. I like to get to set really early and walk the set and say the lines, because soon it’s going to be filled with camera and crew members and cast, so you’re not going to have that time and space. I think of what I want, and I draw it on my sketches, use overheads, but then I walk it because it inevitably feels smaller than it is when you look at it on paper, and then of course when you fill it with cast and crew, it gets smaller. Every morning when I’d get there, I’d be the only person there, and I’d turn around and there she was. That’s who she is. She preps meticulously. She cares very deeply about the characters that she portrays, especially this woman, wanting to do her right, do her story right, get the look right. It was super important to her.
There’s a scene that she has with Tiffany Haddish, who plays [her daughter] Lelia, where she cries, and we shot this and two perfect tears came down her face. Afterwards I went to her and said, “I’m going to start calling you ‘Two Tears Spencer.'” She said, “All right!” She’s so funny and real. And then Blair Underwood is such a gentleman. I loved getting to do all the scenes with them. We could have shot it all day. It was really wonderful. And then Garrett Morris. As soon as I met him, I said, “I have the Saturday Night Live: Not Ready for Prime Time Players cast album. I was gonna bring it, but I thought it might break.” He was like, “Aw, that’s so sweet!” Kevin Carroll as Ransom. He went deep. Every time, he was really crying, whether it was scripted or not, and it made everyone else cry. I’d say, “That’s a cut. Let’s go wipe our faces.” And of course Tiffany Haddish.
AD: Speaking of which, Octavia Spencer is only 7 years older than Tiffany Haddish, and she’s playing her mother. Were any jokes made on set about that? I think they’re supposed to be 15 years apart.
DD: No, there weren’t many jokes about that. Although I must say it was a fun set. There were a lot of laughs all the time. One of the things that I learned, having had the pleasure to work with and for Ava DuVernay, is that it doesn’t feel like she hires crew; it’s like she creates family. That’s something I think really happened and we achieved, through our brilliant line producer, through the people she picked. She selected people she worked with before and knew very well and knew they would go to the mat for her and for us. We had a lot of laughs. There were a lot of inside jokes. A lot of silliness, which is great, because sometimes the material is heavy. Especially in my episodes. It was good to take those moments and have those lighthearted moments.
It was a true honor for me to tell the story, to get to work with so many women and people of color, who came to me individually and said, “I want to be a part of it,” which is a great testament, because in Canada there’s so much work. You could walk two feet and get a job, so there was other stuff up there that was 10 or 22 episodes that they could have taken to take more money. They turned it down to work on this, which is only four episodes. My hope is that there might be some statistic that says how many women-owned businesses the day before this airs and then how many women start them the day after. Knowing they can do it if Madam can do it, what she achieved during a really tough time for both women and black people, and especially black women. What she created, we can do anything. We have so many more resources than she did.
Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker drops on Netflix March 20.