In Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, audiences are treated to a colorful, fantasy-filled retelling of Madam C.J. Walker's tireless journey to revolutionize the beauty industry. Adapted from the biography On Her Own Ground by A’Leila Bundles, the miniseries peels back the layers to reveal a complicated woman with personal pain as great as her motivation.
Self Made captures the complexity of Walker's experience, humanizing the Black legend by showing every side of her— even the ones that Walker herself would have probably wanted to hide. It doesn't shy away from the uglier parts of Walker's life, dedicating significant amounts of the plot to her ongoing battle against colorism, her failing marriage, and her questionable parenting tactics. In Self Made, the entrepreneur is revealed to be an excellent businesswoman and impassioned activist whose personal life and physical health also suffered as a result of her drive.
"Madam put Black women in a position of power, educated them, and gave them the agency to support their communities."
That nuanced storytelling can be credited to the material that the limited series pulled from as well as the obvious talents of its cast and crew, including director DeMane Davis. Scouted to direct the final two episodes of Self Made, Davis believes that landing the coveted gig was kismet in a way; like so many of the women that the hair-care professional had uplifted, much of her career was a direct result of Black women putting her on.
Davis' directorial journey started years ago with an advertising 9 to 5 and a passion for storytelling. While making commercials at an agency, the director was inspired by a friend's harrowing personal story to shoot her first movie. In the 1997 film Black & White & Red All Over, DeMane and her small team carefully unraveled the fallout of gang violence in a Boston community. The film was hailed a success, premiering at that year's Sundance Film Festival. Years later, she directed LIFT, which stars Kerry Washington as a savvy retail store employee living a double life.
The fledgling director's work spoke for her, attracting fans far and wide. One such fan was now Hollywood titan Ava DuVernay, who reached out to Davis on Twitter. "Hey sis," DuVernay's direct message read. "You're a real renaissance woman." Listening her relive that moment, you can just tell that Davis is still giddy about that interaction years later.
An immediate rapport was established between the women, and their close friendship evolved into a working relationship after DuVernay recruited Davis to direct (and later produce and direct) multiple episodes of the OWN series Queen Sugar. She made her small screen directorial debut in 2018, showing up to the show's New Orleans set on crutches.
"It was a seminal experience for me, being on Ava's set," Davis told Refinery29 ahead of Self Made’s premiere on Netflix. "It's something that I aim to recreate on every set I'm on. Because she doesn't hire crew — she creates family. And I've never seen so many women or so many women of color on one set before."
"What she's doing and what she's done is a goal," she continued. "Something that I intend to create when I have my shows — I have to do that because it's been done for me. I've been given many opportunities, great gifts, great friendships, great projects, and I want and need to give that to someone else."
Davis' powerful directorial run on Queen Sugar caught the attention of Shondaland, the production company run by fellow Black women director and producer Shonda Rhimes. Actor and producer Tom Verica (a close friend of DuVernay's) met with her to discuss the possibility of working with Shondaland on a few shows. He asked Davis if she would be interested in directing an episode of the legal drama For the People, an offer that she describes as a "pinch me moment." After For the People, she went on direct episodes of Station 19 and How to Get Away with Murder, even dipping into Netflix territory with the cult favorite thriller You starring Penn Badgley.
"I had to be a part of this. This is legend. This is history!"
Having established herself as a talented director, other offers poured into Davis' inbox. But a familiar story stopped the Boston native in her tracks: a developing series about the first Black woman millionaire in the United States. Long before Davis was privy to the project's star-studded cast (which includes Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, and the eternally handsome Blair Underwood), she was desperate to work on the Netflix production in some capacity. Like Walker and so many other Black women, Davis has a special relationship with hair — her naturally curly mane, peppered attractively with greys, tells its own story.
"I used to want to be a hairstylist," the director revealed. "I worked as a receptionist at a hair salon, and my very first job was working as a go-fer at a salon and sweeping hair off the ground. So hair has always been a constant for me."
Ever the positive thinker, Davis wouldn't even entertain any self-doubt concerning Self Made; in her mind's eye, she had already manifested the gig. The positive vibes worked, because after meeting with the project's team, Davis was brought on to direct the series' last two episodes.
"The thing that I wanted more than anything was to do this," she shared. "Knowing about her story growing up and having read A'Leila's book, I had to be a part of this. This is legend. This is history!"
Davis' passion for Walker's story is evident, and her enthusiasm for the subject matter is matched by everyone involved in the project. Though Self Made is only four episodes long, many crew members prioritized it over other longer, bigger projects because of its cultural significance. Walker is undoubtedly one of the most well-known figures in Black culture, but her story has been, in general, woefully overlooked in pop culture despite her impact on beauty. Self Made attempts to right that wrong by telling her story.
Now that Self Made is available for streaming on Netflix, Davis is hoping that viewers will walk away from the work with a renewed sense of purpose. "Madam C.J. Walker hustled," Davis pointed out. "And it's that hustle that I want people to take on after seeing this. She overcame all of these incredible obstacles because she still had her dream. I can achieve anything because of what she achieved."
"I also want people, especially women of color and Black women, to watch this and think about what they want to build," she continued. "Madam put Black women in a position of power, educated them, and gave them the agency to support their communities. We have to take that lesson in, because that's how we all come up."
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is now available for streaming on Netflix.