- LOS ANGELES
C.J. Walker and her place in history have been known to director-producer DeMane Davis dating back to elementary school. But Walker has resided well below the radar for many, thus giving Davis a sense of purpose when the opportunity arose to impart the groundbreaking entrepreneur’s story to the public at large.
That opportunity has taken the form of a limited series on Netflix, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker starring Octavia Spencer in the title role. Spencer also served as an EP on the four-episode show which centers on the life of Walker, an African-American woman who became the first female millionaire in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. Walker made her fortune by creating and marketing hair products for African-American women. Her rags-to-riches achievement is all the more striking give the deep discrimination and daunting obstacles women and blacks had to cope with at the time.
Based on the book “On Her Own Ground” by author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter, Self Made recruited two directors who took on a pair of episodes apiece--Kasi Lemmons who helmed last year’s acclaimed feature Harriet about Harriet Tubman, architect of the Underground Railroad to help blacks escape slavery; and Davis, adding to such TV credits as director-producer on Queen Sugar, as well as directorial gigs on shows including How to Get Away with Murder.
Lemmons, who also was an EP on Self Made, helmed the first two episodes of the series and like Davis relied on cinematographer Kira Kelly who lensed all four installments. Davis said she and her colleagues gravitated to Kelly’s talent, noting that she like the directors also brought the perspectives of being black and female to the storytelling. “A black female DP, there aren’t many of those,” observed Davis, citing Kelly’s credits which include Queen Sugar and 13th, a series and documentary, respectively, under the aegis of Ava DuVernay.
Kelly served as DP on Davis’ first episodic TV directorial gig which came on season two of Queen Sugar. The director and cinematographer also teamed on The Red Line, a limited series for which DuVernay and Greg Berlanti served as exec producers.
DuVernay first reached out to Davis for the second season of Queen Sugar, entrusting her to direct a couple of episodes. A year later, Davis became a producing director on that primetime series which airs on Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN.
Davis said that Self Made enjoyed the benefit of having professionals like Kelly and Toronto-based line producer Lena Cordina on set, which translated into “my not having any worries.”
In terms of her biggest takeaway from Self Made, Davis said, “It taught me personally I can do this. I can do a period piece with a lot of moving pieces, with Toronto serving as many varied locations.” Also most important, affirmed Davis, is that Walker, whose real name was Sarah Breedlove, serves as a lesson and inspiration that remains relevant today. “Knowing about Madam, how she lived and breathed in this world and what she achieved in hard times, knowing her resiliency inspires us to realize that we can create. We can build something. Even if we’re confined in our homes currently, we can dream and make those dreams a reality. We can achieve anything.”
Walker’s achievements went beyond creating a lucrative hair care business, added Davis, noting that the entrepreneur employed thousands of African-American women, gave them a sense of self, had then operating their own franchises. There was also a philanthropic dimension to her life as she used her money and influence to make a positive difference in communities, including donating funds to the NAACP and lobbying for a bill against lynching. Davis observed that Walker is an inspiration for others “to continue to give back.”
Spencer headlines a Self Made cast which also includes Tiffany Haddish, Blair Underwood, Bill Bellamy and Carmen Ejogo.
Davis has career roots in the advertising industry, having started out as a secretary in the media department of agency Hill Holliday, working her way up to copywriter. She then moved on to other agencies, and owned two small ad shops for a stretch. She freelanced as a writer on Nike, McDonald’s, Citibank, Marshall’s, CVS and American Eagle, and went on to direct campaigns for such clients as Bank of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Tidy Cats and Cigna.
Davis diversified significantly into indie film, directing in tandem with Khari Streeeter and Harry McCoy the feature Black & White & Red All Over, which screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. She and Streeter later directed Kerry Washington in LIFT, a film which premiered at the Sundance Fest in 2001 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
DuVernay then opened the TV series door to Davis who continues to be repped as a commercial director by Boston-based production house Sweet Rickey. “I still want to do commercials,” said Davis, citing the opportunities it affords her to “work with new crew members, discover a new piece of equipment, further hone the skills I learned in advertising--to be able to get across an emotion within a short amount of time. That has served me incredibly well in television because the work is so fast. I learned how to communicate to a bunch of different people as you do in advertising, to connect with different departments and team with talented people.”
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 12 and 13, and the Primetime Emmy Awards on September 20.