'Self Made' now on Netflix: Why it took so long to tell Madam C.J. Walker's story onscreen

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story misspelled director DeMane Davis’ name and misidentified a previous credit for actress Shahadi Wright Joseph. Wright Joseph appeared in "Us."

The incredible story of Madam C.J. Walker seems made for TV.

A woman, born Sarah Breedlove to recently-freed slaves, becomes a teenage mother and struggles with hair loss before developing a line of African American hair products so successful, she becomes America's first female millionaire and, because she has chutzpah, John D. Rockefeller's New York neighbor.

Yet it took a century after Walker's death in 1919 for her to become the subject of a series. 

Octavia Spencer stars in Netflix's “Self Made: Inspired By the Life of Madam C.J., a four-episode series that streams March 20

The show, adapted from Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles' book “On Her Own Ground” and directed by black women (DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons), features plenty of hot combs, colorful coat dresses and dreamlike imagery in a tale of a woman who is “a shining example of black excellence,"  Spencer says.

Octavia Spencer plays Madam C.J. Walker, left, with Blair Underwood as her husband, C.J., in "Self Made."

Spencer embodies Walker as a Southern-accented spark plug who never doubted she could make it big. The limited series follows Walker from a balding, struggling washerwoman who was knocked down by racial and gender biases to her rise as an astute businesswoman and fierce activist with fabulous hair and a thriving company. Blair Underwood plays Walker's sometimes charming, sometimes jealous husband, and Tiffany Haddish co-stars as Walker's free-spirited daughter. 

Spencer, also a producer on the series alongside LeBron James, says Walker was “a standard-bearer in our home" who represented "an understanding that you can create your own path in life and achieve the highest level, even if you were born of nothing.”

Plenty of other women of color have long known Walker the same way. At this year’s Essence Black Women in Hollywood event, when asked which historical figure they'd like to play onscreen, more than one  actress named Walker.

For example, “Us” star Shahadi Wright Joseph barely paused before answering.

“(Madam C.J. Walker) has always empowered me so much for what she’s done for black women by being the first woman millionaire," said Shahadi Wright Joseph, 14 ("Us").  "There needs to be more education about her.”

Yet "Self Made" is the first major film or TV project (aside from 1989 PBS documentary "Two Dollars and a Dream") about a woman who “is kind of a god,” as  Allure fashion director Rajni Jacques describes her. “She is so well known in the black community. (Her legacy) goes beyond hair.” As Spencer puts it, Walker "built a sense of community and allowed black women to create their own destinies."

So why haven’t we seen her onscreen before? It’s not for lack of trying.

"Self Made" is set at the start of the 20th century. Accordingly, there are plenty of period costumes in vibrant prints and colors.

Bundles, the 2001 book's author, says that back in 1982, “Roots” writer Alex Haley approached her about a Walker-inspired miniseries. But it never got off the ground before he died a decade later.  Her book was optioned by CBS, and then HBO. But those projects never panned out, either.

“And then there was this period of time for about a decade when the conventional wisdom in Hollywood was ‘No black films, nobody's interested in these overseas,’” says Bundles. 

 The mood eventually shifted, and Spencer  considers the success of "Hidden Figures," her Oscar-nominated 2016 film about black women at NASA,  a turning point.

“I think people wanted to see more stories like that. So we had a few people that were interested in making (a Madam C.J. Walker project), and Netflix is who we landed with.”

In "Self Made," Madam C.J. Walker is an entrepreneur who started a successful hair care line for African American women. Actress Octavia Spencer's hair care routine for the show wasn't very complicated: "My hair was braided down and somebody else's hair was put on top."

Spencer says it's the right time to tell Walker’s story.

“We're at an inflection point with women coming into power, especially in the political process. We need to see these types of images,” she says. “If (real-life ‘Hidden Figures’ subjects) Katherine (Johnson), Dorothy (Vaughan) and Mary (Jackson) inspired more women to be a part of the space program and STEM, and did that for young female scientists, imagine what Madam will represent for female entrepreneurship.”