To the general populace, Madam C.J. Walker might be considered a relatively unknown figure. But for “Self Made” star Octavia Spencer, the story of America’s first self-made female millionaire is one she’s been familiar with for just about her entire life.
“I was raised with Madam C.J. as a standard-bearer in my home,” Spencer said in an interview with TheWrap. “My mom used her as an example to demonstrate to my siblings and I, because we were born of humble beginnings as well, what we could dream of ourselves … So I’ve known about her my whole life, and that’s why I thought it was time for her story to be told. So other young people could aspire to greatness.”
Spencer executive produces and stars in the four-part Netflix limited series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” chronicling Walker’s rise from a poor childhood in the South to becoming an ultra-successful business magnate in the early 1900s by manufacturing and selling a range of cosmetics and hair care products specifically made for black women.
“Madam C.J. is known in the black community,” Spencer said. “But that’s why it’s important. I felt it was important to tell her story not only so that she would be a shining example of black excellence, but also an example of what she actually achieved to the world … She was a multi-faceted woman and she contributed so much, not only to black culture, but to our culture and society as a whole.”
Walker was born in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, before marrying Charles Joseph Walker (played by Blair Underwood in the series) in 1906 and taking his name as her own. By all accounts the two had a somewhat contentious relationship, but it was that name — Madam C.J. Walker — that would become her legacy, even after the couple’s divorce in 1912 and her death less than a decade later. By the 1920s, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company products were being sold around the world.
Much of the historical basis for “Self Made” draws from the biography “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. A former news producer and president of the Madam C.J. Walker Family Archive, Bundles has a writing credit on all four episodes.
“I used that as my bible,” Spencer said. “And it was wonderful having her involved in [the show]. Without her work, there’s so many details we would never have known about Madam.”
Spencer describes Walker as a “force of nature,” and she plays her as such in the series, gritting her teeth and trusting in her vision and her ability over societal expectations. “I think she’s not only an example for young black girls but young girls at large, because they too can aspire to that kind of greatness,” she said. “Especially in such a misogynist time. It was a very difficult time for women, and she did not allow that to impede her process.”
Ultimately, Spencer hopes that story is one that will resonate with all audiences, perhaps inspiring viewers to seek out Bundles’ book and give Walker the household-name status she deserves.
“I think black women feel the same way about their hair as white women do — we all have a love-hate relationship with our hair,” Spencer said. “What Madam did was create a narrative and a space for black women to be empowered and to feel beautiful. And with that beauty and confidence become empowered and take charge of their own destiny. So I think that story is universal. You don’t have to be a black woman to understand that.”
“And you certainly don’t have to be a black woman to understand the love-hate relationship that all women have with their hair,” she said.
“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker” premieres on Netflix March 20.