When adapting the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first Black female self-made millionaire, into Netflix’s limited series “Self Made,” co-showrunner Elle Johnson knew that there was one thing the team must get right — the hair.
“This was something that myself, the other co-showrunner Janine [Sherman Barrois] and Nicole [Jefferson Asher, series writer] were all really concerned with,” Johnson says. “Because we knew that this project, obviously, is about hair and beauty, that it had to be on point and that we would get dragged if it didn’t look authentic on screen.”
Over the course of the four-episode limited-series, Madam C.J. Walker (portrayed by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) goes from a struggling laundress, trapped in an abusive marriage to millionaire hair-care empress after developing a line of eponymous hair-care products for Black women. So, the creative team focused on each individual’s hair journey as it mirrored their character arc.
“In the first episode, Madam C.J. is depicted in 14 different wigs — going from a woman who had lost a lot of her hair due to scalp disease, to somebody who had a more polished look that reflected how she and her business were coming up,” Johnson explains.
To create the specific looks, Johnson and the team enlisted hair director Etheline Joseph — whom Johnson calls a “hair historian.” Joseph and her team of up to 24 stylists shaped the hair of the actors and extras to fit the time period, creating intricate hairdos with a textured look, versus the super-polished styles often seen on-screen in period pieces. To help achieve that appearance, Joseph and the producers insisted that everyone on set had natural hair.
“We didn’t have anyone who had [chemically] straightened, relaxed hair, or weaves, or wigs of their own,” Joseph says. The production also used approximately 250 wigs for male and female actors. “And these looks were achieved without the appliances [namely straightening irons or blow dryers] and products that we have today.”
But the requirement posed an interesting challenge when casting, Johnson notes. “We had to really be mindful, not just of the performance, but of the look. Making sure people didn’t have so many contemporary elements to their physical appearance — hair that couldn’t be wigged or couldn’t be represented as natural.”
Joseph recalls persuading one background actor, who had a wig glued over her natural hair to remove it for the shoot, a decision with which the actor was later quite happy.
“I told her Madam C.J. Walker worked hard so that we didn’t have to [wear wigs] — that we could have our own natural hair and be proud of it, that we didn’t have to glue on somebody else’s hair on our head to make ourselves look beautiful,” Joseph recalls. “It’s great to have wigs as a change, but I find that we become dependent on it. And I’d like women to know that is not necessary.”
The background actor wasn’t the only person who changed her opinion on the issue. Inspired by the series, Johnson decided to begin wearing her hair naturally after not doing so for years.
“Learning about the importance that [Walker] put on allowing Black women to have their natural hair and to take care of it properly, really made me start to question my own choices about how I was wearing my hair,” Johnson says. “And so, I got to a point where I just lobbed it off and started over. I did the ‘big chop.’ I really hope that people walk away from this [series] feeling confident in their own hair, envious of our hair, and willing to let people have their hair the way it is.”