Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iSelf Made/i co-showrunner Elle Johnson discusses taking on Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy
Photo: Netflix

(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about the new Netflix series Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker.)

For her first foray into showrunning, writer and TV veteran Elle Johnson took on one of the most daunting, overdue stories in American history: the tale of Black cosmetics and haircare mogul Madam C. J. (Sarah) Walker, who created her own phenomenally successful business just over a century ago. Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker traces the beauty entrepreneur’s path to success—a story that has not seen the same on-screen treatment that her fellow titans of industry have been granted over the years. Thankfully, Johnson’s 20 years of experience in television—with credits that include Law & Order and CSI: Miami—superseded the nerves that would come with taking on such a rich legacy. Johnson spoke with The A.V. Club about the fourth episode’s startling revelation and the many ways that Madam C.J. Walker’s journey is still so modern.

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The A.V. Club: One of the reigning sentiments upon the announcement that Madam C.J. Walker’s story would be coming to the screen was, “Finally.” She has such an incredible legacy, yet we haven’t seen it adapted in such a way before now. Did that anticipation add any sort of pressure to your creative process?

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Elle Johnson: I don’t think I ever really thought about how daunting it was. Over the course of a career you are really just yearning for something that you can be passionate about, that you can lose sleep over willingly and want to work on 24 hours a day. And this was, quite frankly, that project. I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever told this story. Once I got involved, I found out from [author and Walker’s great-great-granddaughter] A’Lelia Bundles that [her book On Her Own Ground: The Life And Times Of Madam C. J. Walker] had been in and out of development. The climate in Hollywood was never quite right to get the story told, so I think I was just excited to be a part of the process and to be able to take a swing at getting more people to know about Madam C.J.

In hindsight, we did have days where we were like, “Okay, how are we going to tell this epic story of this iconic woman in a limited series?” We could do this over the course of many seasons and still not explore all of the facets of this incredible woman’s life. So in that sense, the daunting part of it was really just trying to condense it down into the four episodes that we were grateful to have.

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AVC: Walker’s story is inherently radical. She is a Black, self-made woman talking heavily and almost exclusively about Black female enterprise in the early twentieth century. These stories tend to be met with a lot of industry push-back. Did you experience any of that with this project?

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EJ: Once Netflix was on board, they were on board. The smartest thing they did was get it to Octavia Spencer, who signed on not only to star in it, but as an executive producer. And then from there she got LeBron James involved, she hired [film director and series writer] Nicole Jefferson Asher to come up with the pitch, and then Janine Sherman Barrois [Claws] and myself were brought on as co-showrunners because we both are veterans of TV series. Once it was sold to Netflix, they were like, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing. Just tell us how we’re going to tell this story.”

But that attitude is only something we’ve seen within the last two to three years, whereas I think in the early 2000s or 2010 it was a totally different climate in Hollywood. I think back to pitching projects pre-Empire, before having any sort of Black family represented in television, and that was a hard sell. You would actually have executives say to you, “I don’t think a studio or a network is going to put a television show on about a Black family.” So, things have changed. The world has changed. I’ve been working in television for 20 years and this was my first opportunity to help run a show.

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AVC: What aspects of Madam C.J.’s story were you most excited to bring to life?  

EJ: One of the stories that we were all really excited by was her relationship with Booker T. Washington and how he became representative of her trying to make inroads into the male power structure. There’s a section in the book where Bundles talks about how Sarah was doggedly trying to get him to endorse her to the point where she traveled to Tuskegee unannounced and offered to do the hair of every woman in his life just to win him over. That’s when she showed up at one of the National Negro Business League’s conferences, stormed the stage, and told her story. That, to us, was riveting because it showed how persistent she was. It showed how even in the face of somebody trying to tell her that she was less than, that she knew the value of what she had, which is a business that would enrich not only her own life, but the lives of so many Black women.

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AVC: Hearing Washington essentially say, “Men first” felt so familiar. It’s an unfortunately timeless sentiment for Black women to endure within any sort of movement, so it was inspiring to see her take charge. We even see her nemesis, Addie Monroe (based on haircare entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone), applaud her speech at the convention.

EJ: Those moments were really interesting, too. We loved the moment where he calls Addie onto the stage. What we also wanted to show is that they understand what they’re both up against: She’s up there on stage and yet he won’t let her talk, he’s treating her like an object, he shoos her off stage before she can even say anything, and Sarah feels that as well. So even though they were competitors, there is still compassion underneath it because they’re women. They’re both in the same struggle.

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AVC: For the first three episodes, the audience is undoubtedly on Sarah’s side. Then the fourth and final installment drops a bombshell: that Walker actually stole the formula from Addie. What was the conversation surrounding the inclusion of that moment like?

EJ: When I read the book, I knew that it was a key moment. It’s a surprising, character revealing moment, in many ways. I feel like when we’re showing stories about Black women we don’t get to have she always has to be strong and unflinching and not flawed in any way. We’re human beings. We really felt we needed to lean into that moment to show that we are also competitors, like Tesla and Edison. It’s like the phrase, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” The great titans of industry stole from each other. Gates and Jobs, for instance. There’s a lot of taking from each other there, but women aren’t allowed to do that. We felt like it was really important to show that this is a woman who was a titan of industry. She was a serious businessperson, just like Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie. She deserves to be up there in that pantheon and she’s doing just what the boys do. When a woman does it it’s scandalous, but when a man does it, he’s assertive, he’s going after what he loves. And that’s what Sarah was doing. Let’s see the full story, warts and all.

AVC: Addie was pretty complex herself. She sustained some abuse, we see the call with her mother where she trivialized her struggles, as well as the way Booker T. Washington treats her like an object on the convention stage. Then we find out that her formula was stolen and that she actually has a right to be angry with Sarah. What was your goal in creating Addie, especially for a story that is so steeped in colorism?

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EJ: What was exciting to us in creating this composite character, who is based on real people at the time, was that we wanted to show other hair culturalists, women that Sarah would have been competing against. The impetus is to create a character that felt multidimensional, so that she wasn’t just a villain. Because we were dealing with colorism, it was important to not just make her the light-skinned villain. We wanted to make sure that people understood that that attitude also comes from someplace, that she’s as much a victim of racism and colorism as Sarah is. That comes with its own set of problems. We also wanted to recognize that during that time period, the vast majority of light-skinned people that you might have encountered in America were probably the product of a rape, so she’s got some other issues going on that she has to deal with. She is a complete character who has a life of her own, who has got things that have influenced the decisions that she’s made, that influence the way that she moves in the world. And she has a different perspective. It’s not as easy for her as Sarah would like to think, either.

AVC: There are a lot of fantasy and modern elements woven into this very old tale. The series opens with music from Janelle Monae and Little Simz, and then you have this fantasy boxing motif, musical numbers, the taunting Walker girls (a marketing prototype created by Sarah’s husband, C.J.) on bikes.

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EJ: When Nicole Jefferson Asher pitched the series, her concept was always to have these woven throughout. We didn’t want to make a straight biopic that would feel like it was homework. We wanted to make sure that we were doing something that would kind of turn the biopic on its ear and do it in a different way. And the reason for that is because Madam C.J. Walker herself was such a visionary, was such a modern thinker who was way ahead of her time, we felt like that was a way to kind of infuse the series with a sense of her forward thinking. She’s a woman for a modern time, and we felt like those touches would really bring that home. It was also a way for us to get inside Sarah’s head. With the Walker Girls, we wanted to show that this is a woman who is now on the verge of becoming a millionaire, who has a successful company, who has done something that no other woman in America has done, and yet she’s still plagued by this idea of not being pretty enough, of not being good enough.

With the music, we felt like Sarah was a person who could own a Victrola. Tom Turpin’s night club was down the street from her, so she was hearing ragtime and jazz. She was hearing what would have been considered, for that time, modern music. And so we loved the idea of putting modern music into this period piece because Sarah was all about that.

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AVC: Since this was your first opportunity to co-run a show, did you learn anything about yourself and your creative process through this experience?

EJ: Having been in rooms and writers’ rooms all of my career, the ones that are the most successful are the ones where you can be completely honest about what you’re feeling, where you can bring your own stories to the table to help inform the characters. Having to talk to each other honestly about our experiences with our looks, with how other people interact with us, was hard, because we had to have really honest conversations about that. So this show just enabled me to have conversations that I have never really been able to have in a writers’ room. So I jumped at the chance to finally explore these issues for Black women because we don’t often get to see our issues discussed. For some people these might be perceived as “airing dirty laundry,” but to me that is the reason that you create art: to talk about these things that get suppressed, the things that we’re afraid to talk about. That’s the reason to do this. It was such an honor and a privilege to be able to have this conversation, you know?

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