The story of Madam CJ Walker has finally arrived in the new Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.
The upcoming Netflix limited series, premiering March 20th stars Octavia Spencer (Madam CJ Walker), Blair Underwood (CJ), and Carmen Ejogo (Addie). The last two episodes of the series are directed by Demane Davis and she has a great story. She directed a couple of indie films that garnered her major Sundance attention, and then – as often happens in Hollywood (especially to women) nothing. She chucked her dream and went back to Boston to work in the advertising game and several years later, Ava DuVernay came calling — and now here she is living her directing dreams! Davis directed episodic TV such as Queen Sugar, You, How to Get Away with Murder, Station 19 and more. Davis has never given up and her work with Ava is a true testament of women supporting and uplifting other women.
BGN exclusively sat down with the filmmaker to discuss her work on Self Made and how this series will make an impact on female entrepreneurship.
You directed the last two episodes of the Madam CJ Walker series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. How did you get attached to this project?
Well, when I heard about it, I was like I have to be a part of it. And really what drove me to it is I knew about Madam CJ Walker obviously from Black History Month and elementary school you learn about her. And I was just incredibly taken with her and her achievements and impressed. I worked in a hair salon when I was 12, that was my very first job. I was a gofer in a hair salon and I used to take out roller sets and sweep up hair and get people lunches and stuff like that. And then later, I was a receptionist at a hair salon in Boston and I would go around and give people magazines when they were sitting under the dryers. And ask them, “Can I get you some water?” I remember trying to make it like a super upscale experience. I would make stylebooks so that people could look at different, haircuts and stuff and pick out what they wanted.
The thing that I love the most is when a woman walked into that salon and she was sort of like wearing a scarf and hunched a little bit head down. And then that transformation when she exited. Do you know what I mean? It was She made her own wind. There was a Beyonce fan on her and she was just smiling and joyful. And that always really stuck with me. When I heard that this was going to be a series, I was like, I have to be on it. I have to be on it. I’m a super believer in the power of positive thoughts. So I was like, I’m going to do it. I’m going to be a part of it. And I told my agent and a friend of mine Shaz Bennett, female director, fantastic person, knew Elle Johnson. And I mentioned that to Al who’s one of the showrunners. And then l called me in. I got a meeting with Alan, Janine, and Nicole. I put together a book and I said, I just have to be a part of this project. And at the meeting, it went extremely well.
You work obviously with Octavia Spencer, who plays the title character, and she’s also a producer on this series. Does that change the dynamic at all as you being a director working with an actor-producer?
No. She has a bigger stake in it, and she cares more about it. I just love it when people care, and when they’re passionate, they’re really active. That’s what she was. We would all talk about this woman like she’s here and we would always say we’ve got to honor her. And one of the things that were pretty amazing is that we had a very diverse crew, we had a lot of women, a lot of women of color. A lot of Black women, which was great. Miss Octavia, as I call her, has her own team, who did their thing.
And you’re talking about department heads in every department who they could have taken other jobs that were because this was four episodes. You talked about people who could have taken jobs that were eight episodes or more. And they turned down those jobs to do this because they said as soon as I heard that this was happening, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to tell her story. I wanted to honor her. And that’s just a beautiful thing. So you’re already working with people who are totally passionate, at the service of telling the story, so that was amazing.
The great-great-granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker, A’Lelia Bundles also worked on this film with you and your team. What capacity did she navigate any of the scenes with you as a director?
She visited set and I had the joy of meeting her. When I was directing, she was on set for a few days when I was there. We all just nailed her feet, to be honest with you. You’re talking about a woman who is the keeper of the light literally who was told her story, authored it and continues to this day to tell her story and watches over her legacy. She also grew up Madam CJ Walker and played with her. She mentioned one time how she wore a necklace one time of hers and lost it. you know, like so when she showed up on set, everyone just surrounded her with love and adoration and just so grateful, really just thanked her for writing the book and the blueprint for us to go off and she seemed very happy. She was very engaged.
I did sort of go over and look to her a couple of times and she was smiling and she was totally into it. Her hair is ridiculous, by the way. So gorgeous. I remember when I first saw her, I saw her from behind at the lunch table. And she was sitting with the line producer and I was like, “Look at this woman’s hair is gorgeous”. And then I got closer I was like, “Oh my God Ms. Bundles is here!” She’s really spectacular.
Were there any particular scenes or moments while filming that resonate with you the most?
Um, I loved all the scenes with Miss Octavia and Blair Underwood. They had such incredible chemistry and they have a lot of fun doing the scenes too, I just I could have gone on and on. I felt so lucky to get to make arguments in Episode Three and him coming the end getting on bended knee and her being like “no”. That was really incredible there. I got chills a lot of times it was those moments, and also Kevin Carroll, having him talk about sweetness in her office, that whole scene, talking about what happened I mean that those are real tears, you’re talking to actors who are breathing life into the material and embodying it and give you real emotions that brought a lot of the other crew to tears, you know, just watch them. So those are probably those are sort of the biggest moments for me really experiencing that. The things that moved them both as actors and people next to what moves me is what I remember most.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching this series
I really hope that people will have the reaction that you had which makes me so happy which, as an entrepreneur, you are inspired by it and hopefully you can appreciate what you’ve done already and what you will do. I sort of want there to be some sort of statistics put in place the day before it airs and then after to see how many women start businesses and products. That’s really what I want to see. I’m thrilled for young women and young girls, Black women and women of color to take a look at it and to know that they can do whatever it is that they want to do and you know, I also want people to understand that the hardships that we have in this lifetime — respect that they’re hard. But if you look at what Madam achieved being, which includes being the daughter of slaves married at 14, widowed at 19, single-parent going door to door with products at a time when they were still lynching Black people, buying property in Pittsburgh, Denver, St. Louis, Indianapolis — she took on borders.
I’m excited for people to see and to be inspired to see she overcame it, the things that she overcame. I can create whatever it is that I want to create. She didn’t take no for an answer. And she, she kept going. And then there’s the philanthropy piece, which I think is huge in terms of what she provided for women, giving them businesses, giving them agency, encouraging them to live out their dreams, as well as, having different causes that she supported the anti-lynching bill. The money that she gave causes to she was at the ready to march or donate at any at any time, which is exactly what we have to do right now. And what I think women need to see today.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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