Netflix’s new limited series “Self Made” is about a hair care mogul who became the first black woman to bank a million — but it’s also about the definition of success and how to make it in America.
The drama show premiering Friday focuses on Sarah Breedlove, born in 1867, and is better known as Madam C.J. Walker.
“It’s human beings trying to make it in the world,” Blair Underwood, who plays C.J. in the series, told the Daily News.
Octavia Spencer stars as Walker, a Mississippi woman looking for her own place in the late 1800s. She finds it in the hair care industry, helping black women who look like her and are ignored by the rest of the world. But in the time it takes her to grow from a one-woman show selling products on the street to running a massive empire, Walker’s story becomes one of convincing people that she not only belongs, but deserves her place at the table.
“People are hungry for these stories,” A’Lelia Bundles, author of the Madam C.J. Walker biography “On Her Own Ground,” on which “Self Made” is based, told the Daily News. Bundles is the great-granddaughter of C.J.’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who is played in the show by Tiffany Haddish.
“There are literally hundreds of stories about women of color that haven’t been told that are amazing, fantastic, better than anything else,” Bundles said.
Bundles began telling her great-great-grandmother’s story as a high school senior in 1970, then for her graduate thesis at Columbia Journalism School. “Roots” author Alex Haley wanted to turn it into a miniseries but died before he had the chance. Bundles’ book was optioned multiple times but never made it to the screen.
“A decade of conventional thinking in Hollywood (was) that nobody’s interested overseas in black movies, so we’re not interested in talking to you,” she said. “Then, #OscarsSoWhite, ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Selma’ and ‘The Butler’ happened and it changed the narrative.”
Comedian Bill Bellamy, who plays the fictional Sweetness in “Self Made,” said he learned about Walker while studying at Rutgers University and always dreamed about telling her story.
“She’s one of my, ‘oh my God’ heroic entrepreneurial-type characters in American history,” he said. “Mrs. Walker was the bomb.”
Sweetness, one of the few characters invented for the four-episode Netflix series, comes from Walker’s old life, a man from, in Bellamy’s words, the wrong side of the tracks, but whose questionable money supply helps launch her empire.
Then there’s C.J., who gives his name to his wife but in return loses his own. Underwood said he knew Spencer for 20 years before signing on to play her husband.
“So, I’m playing your man?” he asked Spencer when she approached him about the role.
“You’re playing the man who helped make the woman,” she responded.
C.J., Underwood said, was there before his wife became rich, famous and powerful.
“He wasn’t a gold-digger trying to get her wealth. He was there before the wealth came along,” Underwood said. “He was just a man who was overtaken by and overshadowed by her success. But he was dealing with outside forces looking at him as Mrs. C.J. Walker, which is just such an irony, because C.J. Walker was him. She was known in relation to him.”
In the late 1800s, and in Mississippi, that wasn’t how it was done. But for Madam Walker, it was.
Bundles didn’t grow up hearing the story of her great-great grandmother, but her presence was there.
“We didn’t sit around the dining table talking about Madam Walker, but the silverware that we used every day had her monogram on it and our china for special occasions had been Madam Walker’s china … and the baby grand piano on which I learned to read music had been in A’Lelia Walker’s apartment in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance,” Bundles told The News.
Now, the rest of the world can also hear the story of Madam C.J. Walker, who died in 1919 in Westchester, where she had a home.
“I hope when people watch this series, they will see … the courage that Madam Walker had, how she empowered other women, how she was able to start and build a business,” Bundles said. “But also the sacrifices that come with that.”