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‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Self Made’ Bosses on Centering Female Relationships in Their Storytelling

Unbelievable and Self Made Executive Producers
Grant: Netflix; Barrois/Johnson: Flo Ngala/Netflix

Although they are set a century apart, both Netflix limited series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” and “Unbelievable” tell years-long true stories of enterprising women in a shorter-form storytelling setting.

Susannah Grant, who wrote, produced and directed “Unbelievable,” weaved a complicated, multi-person, multi-jurisdiction narrative that starts with a young woman’s horrific sexual assault and continues on to explore how her story was not believed and how she tried to cope quietly in the aftermath, all while two detectives in another city were investigating a case involving the same perpetrator.

Elle Johnson and Janine Sherman Barrois, co-showrunners of “Self Made,” followed the titular Madam C.J. Walker (played by Octavia Spencer) as she rose to fame, acclaim and wealth with her own hair-care line at the turn of the 20th century, despite facing racism, sexism and colorism from within the Black community — not to mention a complicated personal life.

Here, these women talk about tackling such sensitive subject matter with respect to the real-life individuals, as well as the importance of female stories such as these being told by women both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

How did you balance the tones of your shows, knowing such topics as sexual assault, racism and colorism are inherently going to be tough for some viewers? Were there other elements that surprised you with how much they, too, caused an emotional reaction?

Janine Sherman Barrois: We winded up doing sexual assault, too, which we knew was going to be hard. But we also spent a lot of time talking about the anti-lynching movement. We thought we were going to tell a very large lynching story — because that is something that Madam C.J. Walker fought against. Ultimately, we ended up telling a C or D plot with three or four scenes, but it had the same emotional punch as if you were seeing the whole journey because we all know the horror of lynching in this country, we all have seen scenes of it before. So, to see impressionistic scenes and to see someone realizing their loved one had been lynched, we didn’t need to see a ton of brutality on people’s bodies to get the effect of it and the effect on
the community.

Susannah Grant: That’s interesting; that last point you made is something that was made so clear to our team as well in making “Unbelievable.” In fact, often I think the more you see, the less affecting it is because it becomes voyeuristic. So we had the same approach with our primary subject matter, which was sexual assault. As for the other, I’m not sure I was necessarily surprised by things, but there were other scenes within the show that were important for me to show, and one was a quality female professional partnership that turns into a female professional friendship that felt like partnerships that I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life.

Elle Johnson: That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about “Unbelievable”: how you could see these women cops working together, but they still had their own perspective and lived in a space that felt really authentic and professional. But in our show, one of the things we wanted to show was business competition between women. We wanted to show that women can be competitive, that women want to succeed, that they are driven — and driven in business. Madam C.J. was such a force, but there were other women attempting to do what she did, and they could compete like men and like how any titan of American industry would, doing whatever it took by any means necessary to get ahead in their business.

Grant: I loved how you made it not something she learned but, from the beginning, who she was — that she was very ambitious.

Barrois: The other thing was her relationship with her husband. I think we now see women breaking the glass ceiling and we see a culture embracing women rising above constraints, but in 1910, seeing a Black woman, 40 years after slavery, really believe that her position and her goal in life was not just to be a wife and stay at home but to build an empire, it was interesting to see the pain of her husband, who wanted so badly to believe in her but felt like he was getting left behind. All of that was before its time and the start of feminism, and you could see how hard it was.

What was your guiding principle for being respectful to the real-life people you are depicting, while still feeling able to show their shortcomings and taking creative liberties for the specific needs of your series?

Grant: There was a legal issue where both the detectives in Colorado were not able to sell their life rights. They didn’t sign up to be public figures — certainly their spouses and partners in life did not sign up to have their private lives out there for public consumption. But there’s no way to tell the story in any compelling way without telling all dimensions of the human beings. So I very early said to them, “I’d like to make these characters inspired by you, but I don’t actually want you to tell me about your partners because if there are any similarities I want them to be accidental.” I took some key elements of them that I thought really informed the way they did their work. For example, the character that Merritt Wever plays is inspired by Detective Stacy Galbraith, and faith is a foundational part of her life, and it really informed what she brought to her work, so I definitely wanted to keep that and use that as square one of building the character. And similarly, the character that Toni [Collette] plays is inspired by Detective Edna Hendershot, who does work on muscle cars with her husband, and that inspires, in my thinking, a rougher way into the work day. You can’t possibly show somebody in only their best moments and do anything worthwhile with it at all, but it’s probably easier when the person is no longer alive.

Johnson: Well, Madam C.J. is no longer with us, but her great-great-granddaughter, who wrote the book that our show is based on, is, and she’s dedicated her entire life to perpetuating Madam C.J.’s legacy and keeping people informed about her. So our challenge was showing a Black woman in her full and complete humanity — because we felt like, until very recently, that’s something we haven’t had an opportunity to see. We really wanted to show Madam C.J. as a woman who had a loving relationship and marriage and was a businesswoman, but she was flawed and made mistakes and was driven and willing to make sacrifices in terms of her daughter and husband and friends or frenemies. It was really important to show the full spectrum of that, particularly knowing that we had Octavia Spencer playing Madam C.J.

Grant: Did you get into how the granddaughter feels about the piece? Was she involved as you went along?

Barrois: She was very involved. We talked to her from the very beginning when the show was pitched, and when we wrote outlines we went through them with her, and then when we wrote scripts we had Facetime sessions where we went page by page with her.

Johnson: Sometimes four-hour long Facetime sessions! She did start off as a journalist, but her book is non-fiction; it’s not a narrative, so I think we had to walk her through some of the differences that were apparent and the differences in the medium that we’re working in from the medium that she’s working in. So we felt it was really important that we go step by step with her. And I think at the end of the day she was really pleased with the outcome, even though she admits there are differences — especially now that it’s prompted people to be more interested in Madam CJ and driven them to look up what was factually correct about all of it.

Barrois: Adding to what Elle said, when you have an “inspired by” title, it allows you to connect the dots with their lives a bit more. We don’t know, factually, every single moment of their day, but as storytellers, in telling a story about beauty, we felt it was very, very important to talk about colorism because that was a driving thing that was happening, and it’s still happening today. So we made a composite character as an antagonist of all the beauty moguls so that we could bounce the narrative of Madam C.J. off of her. We heard different things about Madam C.J. and the formula, did she take it and how did she deal with staff? And how was her relationship with her daughter? We had to build these characters so they were multidimensional to draw actors in, and when we stepped back at it, if we were to have just transcribed the book, we would not have had a full-fledged dramatic narrative.

In telling these stories, how important did you feel it was to have other women, in addition to yourselves, in key roles behind the scenes?

Grant: My longtime producing partner, Sarah Timberman, is also a woman, and honestly, I can’t remember a conversation about gender in our hiring: We just wanted the best people for this particular job, and quite often, those were women. When it came to the director for the first three episodes, there were a few things that I knew were really, really important, [such as] emotional authenticity and an awareness and real respect for the invisible airspace between human beings and what it holds — and no one of any gender does that better than Lisa Cholodenko. So we chased her quite hard, and the fact that she is a woman, I imagine, made Kaitlyn Dever comfortable, because she had to, on the second day, shoot those sexual assault scenes. Michael Dinner shot the middle three episodes, and he is just as much of a sensitive human being as they are. But I do think more of our department heads were female, and that was just done by hiring the best people for the job.

Johnson: We definitely made a conscious decision that we were going to hire as many Black women as possible because Janine and I have been in this business for 20 years — often as the only African-American women in the room — and we really wanted to make sure that women like us got to tell this story because this story is so important to the Black community. And quite frankly, the amount of time this took from pitching it to shooting it to actually getting it on air, it required people who were passionate about the subject matter and for whom this was going to transcend a normal gig. Our line producer said no to other gigs and was willing to hang on for six months while we got all of our ducks in a row — and she was willing to do that. There were many people who had to consciously say no to work in order to work on this, and I feel like that kind of dedication would only come from Black women who understood how important it was to tell Madam CJ’s story — because, unbelievably, it has never been told before.

Barrois: And to add to that, period pieces with African Americans that don’t deal with slavery and that don’t deal with the civil-rights movement are so hard to get made: People don’t believe they’re going to make money overseas, and so a lot of projects have collected dust on the shelves that are passion projects of artists of color. And so, it was historic that we were even allowed to tell this story. People will tell you they’ve been trying to tell Madam C.J.’s story for 20, 25 years. Often we’re not on the list of the best, but we are part of the best, and so we were deliberate in making sure that we made every single call to get people of color who wanted to tell this story.

What did working on these projects teach you about the strides women, and women of color, have made in the industry but the big gaps that still need to be filled in?

Grant: The list that Janine just mentioned — that is a huge challenge. You have to go above and beyond the list that all the seasoned line producers get and share; you have to push to find the people who have long-deserved to be on there and aren’t. When I’m hiring, I look at the list, and then I will send an email around to Women of Color and Time’s Up and say, “Fill out this list for me” — because there’s not often many women of color on it. It takes another network to make the list look like life — because those lists are old and there are a lot of really good artists and craftspeople who are not on them.

Barrois: I hope other artists and creators, if they have a story about Sammy Davis Jr. or Ida B. Wells, they can now say, internationally, “Look at what happened when you put Octavia Spencer in this story, it did this.” That is undeniable. So now when you’re pitching to another network and you’re trying to set up that project, you can say, “Look at who helped make it,” and it just expands the arsenal of people who are go-to people. Hopefully we have made it easier for the next artist who wants to do a Josephine Baker limited series — that they won’t have to wait 20 more years.

Grant: And there won’t be so many contingencies put on it.