Megan McLachlan chats with Self Made co-showrunner Elle Johnson about the timelessness of her new Netflix show and whether the limited series could go the way of Big Little Lies.
When Octavia Spencer and her team approached Elle Johnson about working on Self Made, they asked her if she knew who Madam CJ Walker was.
Johnson told them: “I’m a black woman in America. Of course I know Madam CJ Walker.”
Based on the book On Her Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker (which was written by A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker), Self Made on Netflix traces the journey of Madam CJ Walker (Octavia Spencer), who creates and sells hair products tailored for black women and becomes the first female African American millionaire.
This not only marks Johnson’s first limited series, but also a venture away from cop procedurals like Bosch, The Glades, and Saving Grace.
“I really enjoy living in both spaces, both procedurals and character shows. [With a limited series], it’s different in that you know you have a limited amount of time to help the audience get to know these characters, and you have to whittle it down to the most important things you want to say.”
The History of Madam CJ Walker, The Entrepreneur
Sure, before taking on the project, Johnson knew who Madam CJ Walker was, but the extent of her knowledge didn’t go much farther than her mother’s cabinet.
“My mother still buys [Madam CJ Walker] products. They still sell them today. Of course it’s a different formula.”
For her research, Johnson read Bundles’ book, which recounts how Madam CJ Walker came to learn about hair-growing products when she was going bald; the hair products she ended up creating helped so many women during the time period, including herself.
“In the writing, we had so much to pick and choose from. There were specific stories that we knew we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to explore her relationship with her husband CJ [Blair Underwood] and her love-hate relationship with Booker T. Washington. We knew we wanted to show when she storms the stage [at the National Negro Business League Convention] to make her point because it’s an incredible moment in her life.”
Johnson and co-showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois wanted to use as many stories as possible, and in order to present the time period, took a liberty with the character of Addie, played by Carmen Ejogo.
“Addie was based on many characters during the time period, as there were many female entrepreneurs like her selling hair products, so we wanted to fully explore that side of things with that character.”
A Story That Could Happen Today
Many of the themes in the show are themes still present, including sexism and prejudice. Another side that the limited series explores is sexual fluidity, specifically with that of Madam CJ Walker’s daughter Lelia, played by Tiffany Haddish.
“Lelia was married three times, and it just never worked out. But she also had relationships with women. In getting to depict the full scope of this story, this was a wonderful way to be inclusive.”
Haddish, who typically plays comedic roles, had mentioned on a podcast that she wanted to be a part of a project about Madam CJ Walker, which is how Self Made snapped her up.
“She had so much to draw on. We knew she wanted to be a part of it.”
Yet, while the series tackles themes society still struggles with today, Johnson finds it totally necessary to depict instead of succumbing to frustration.
“In term of Madam’s story, it spoke to how ahead of the time she was. And women still have to deal with sexism and racism today. That’s what was attractive about the series to us—how contemporary it felt. I think a lot of what was at her core was to improve things for black women. She pulled herself out of being a washer woman and then helped other black women get more confidence with their hair, that would lead to better jobs for them and a better life. She gave back to the community, too. She rewarded people for how much they sold by giving back. I think she learned she could improve her race in a significant way that was not previously done for black women.”
An entrepreneur on the rise. Romance. Infidelity. Betrayal. While watching Self Made, one can’t help but enjoy living in this world that’s rife with drama and inspiration, and imagine more adventures for these characters. Could more Walker stories come to light?
“Well, she dies in 1919, which limits how long it could go on, but Lelia goes on to become an incredible patron of the black arts and involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Maybe Netflix is listening?”
Self Made streams on Netflix starting March 20.