Elle Johnson Interview: ‘Self Made’ showrunner
Elle Johnson, the showrunner for “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” cuts right to the chase when it comes to how black people in America, and black women in particular, have been maligned because of their hair. “That is a struggle that has persisted ever since we were brought to this country as slaves. We’ve had to adapt to what is a white standard of beauty and our hair was not included in that,” she explains in our recent webchat (watch the video above).
When Madam C.J. Walker came along with her products, those items allowed black women to be able to care and style their hair in a way that they had never been able to before. But it was more than just hair care that Walker brought to black women. “She created an industry that also enabled them to work outside of being domestics to get them out of menial jobs and put them into jobs where they were saleswomen, hairdressers and salon owners.”
“Self Made,” starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as the titular character, chronicles how Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, went from being a domestic clothes washer to a mogul of hair products for black women under the name Madam C.J. Walker. In doing so during the 1900s and 1910s, she became the first woman to become a self-made millionaire. The Netflix limited series also stars Tiffany Haddish, Blair Underwood, Carmen Ejogo, Bill Bellamy and Garrett Morris.
Working on this project was not just a professional one for Johnson. She actually had her own journey of self-discovery in terms of her own hair after working on the show. “I’ve processed my hair, straightened, relaxed my hair and as a result of working on this show, I started to question why I was continuing to do this to myself for most of my life,” she admits. Johnson then did “the big chop,” got all of the dye and relaxer out and started wearing her hair naturally. “As a result of trying to tell her story that I really felt like I needed to free myself from the constraints of having to have a certain type of hair and a certain type of beauty.”
Even though the series is four episodes, there were still aspects of Walker’s life that weren’t able to be included in the program. In particular, Johnson highlighted how she wished the series could have addressed Walker’s involvement in the anti-lynching movement and advocacy for federal anti-lynching legislation that brought her to a meeting at the White House. After her meeting at the White House, “as a result of being this kind of millionaire, super powerful, black woman she got on a list at the Department of Defense and so they put a spy in her camp to see what she was up to,” Johnson explains. She elaborates that the reason we know about this is because Walker’s great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, had gotten access to the correspondence the spy had with the D.O.D. for her biography of Walker, which served as the basis for the limited series.