Octavia Spencer Could Change What We Expect of Period Dramas

Netflix's "Strong Black Lead" initiative continues to pick up steam with a biopic about the first black self-made millionaire in America.

Octavia Spencer

Netflix’s “Strong Black Lead” initiative continues to pick up steam with a biopic about the first black self-made millionaire in America.

The “Strong Black Lead” initiative made its debut last month at the 2018 BET Awards, effectively with a TV spot entitled “A Great Day in Hollywood,” which features 47 of Netflix’s black creators and a promise of new, innovative and inclusive content.

Ava DuVernay, whose Oscar-nominated 13th remains one of the most popular documentaries on the streaming site, is among those talents in the video. She recently connected as writer and director of Netflix’s upcoming Central Park Five miniseries, retelling the real-life incarceration of five young black men, and this appears to be only the beginning of a strand of original black-helmed content that continues with a newly announced Madam C.J. Walker miniseries.

Octavia Spencer will executive produce and star as the hair care entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam C.J. Walker, whose parents had been slaves before the turn of the century. The series will be based on the book “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” by A’Leila Bundles. Walker’s story is mostly unknown to many but is highly pivotal to black hair care and the historical relationships of societal discrimination to black hair and pride.

Walker used profits from her hair care products, as well as her list of contacts, to lobby for change at a time when the KKK was at its most dominant and destructive. A member of the NAACP, Walker funded and pushed for many of the anti-lynching and voting campaigns run by the organization. She also provided scholarships for promising young black students, addressing issues in education.

This parallels what many stars are doing today, using their influence and platforms to advocate for change. The more unseen, formative aspect to the biopic, however, lies with the stature of Walker herself. Most period dramas — particularly biopics with black characters at their center, of which there are few — tell stories of injustice and suffering. Within recent years, tales of pain such as 12 Years A Slave, Precious, and Fences have undeniably portrayed important facets of real life, yet a celebration of black success told on screen has been attributed to be hindered by such tales of adversity.

Black characters in period dramas are often few and far between. Particularly in places such as the UK, where they fill many of the primetime slots on national television (Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Call the Midwife are well into multiple series now and still continue to gain popularity), it’s an openly acknowledged issue that roles for black British actors are rarely included in such a popular genre and thus lead to a search for work elsewhere, usually overseas in the US. This in itself has been contested, most famously when Samuel L. Jackson commented on British Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in the film — which would eventually come to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar — and led to the messy remark, “What would a brother from America have made of that role?”

Walker’s story will undoubtedly feature themes of discrimination, but will hopefully focus on her successes — after all, she does hold the title of the “first black self-made millionaire,” which in itself is a pretty great handle. Not only does the narrative accommodate a period drama in which black people will lead, but Walker’s story is ultimately one to celebrate. Centering on an entrepreneurial businesswoman who used her influence to push for civil rights and support those around her, the biopic is an example of what black representation may develop into in years to come.

Rather than stories of slavery and incarceration being the familiarity for producers when it comes to black historical content, celebrations of successful, skilled, and talented black characters on screen are resonant examples of what else can be done for the genre of the period drama. Although its the most obvious example, it’s likely the best: Black Panther‘s success in showcasing and celebrating black culture is a figurehead for what people want to see, as well as what deserves to be represented.

Behind the camera, too, are black creatives to carry the C.J. Walker series. Producing alongside Spencer is basketball star Lebron James, who is connected through the company Springhill Entertainment, Janine Sherman Barrois (Claws), Elle Johnson (Bosch), and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me), who also directed the pilot episode. And Love Beats Rhymes screenwriter Nicole Asher penned the eight-episode biopic series. Ultimately, “Strong Black Lead” and Netflix appear to be fostering new content through the initiative in decisive and innovative ways.