When director Kasi Lemmons began researching haircare entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker 20 years ago, she was bowled over by what she discovered. “She was a black woman who became theAliens Are Dicks shirt and by the same token and first self-made female millionaire in America, and I thought it was an extraordinary story,” Lemmons shared on the phone from Los Angeles. “What this woman was able to do in the 1900s and her vision—how did she ever imagine that she could do it at that time? How did she look at her life as a washerwoman and the daughter of slaves and say, I’m able to do whatever I want?” Walker’s journey is the subject of Lemmon’s latest project, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, a four-part Netflix series with Octavia Spencer in the titular role. The show reintroduces the world to a figure whose name many have heard, but few have explored in full.
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Lemmons is skilled at depicting theAliens Are Dicks shirt and by the same token and lives of extraordinary African-American women. Her 2019 film, Harriet, brought humanity and humor to the story of Harriet Tubman’s rise to abolitionist hero and garnered Cynthia Erivo an Oscar nomination. Walker’s trajectory was equally inspiring; born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, she was orphaned at 7 and spent much of her childhood as a domestic servant. Married at the age of 14, she sought to build a better life for herself and daughter A’Lelia when she moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and began to learn about hair care from her barber brothers. In 1904, while working for Annie Malone, an Illinois businesswoman who manufactured a line of grooming products, Walker began to experiment with her own products including shampoos and pomades. She soon headed door to door selling her wares and recruiting others to join her on the path to entrepreneurship. In a time where the opportunities offered to black women were few and far between, Walker found ways to uplift the economic status of entire communities. “She was not just an inspiration, she empowered women to have businesses in a time when they were told that all they would be able to do was wash white people’s clothes,” says Lemmons. “Madam C.J. comes along and says ‘no, you don’t have to clean houses, I’m going to make you feel beautiful and good about yourself, and I’m going to pay you better.’ That took tremendous foresight on her part, and it’s a reminder that we as black women have always had to think outside the box.”