Madam Spencer

In 2012, Octavia Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for playing the maid, Minnie, in the movie The Help. Five years later, Spencer was nominated again for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Dorothy Vaughan in the film Hidden Figures, about Black female mathematicians who made history at NASA and helped launch the first space ship. In the new Netflix series, Self Made, Spencer is playing another historical figure — Madam C.J. Walker. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, a Black woman who became the nation’s first female self-made millionaire after creating hair products for Black women. The series started this spring.


Spencer talked to The Crisis magazine about Madam C.J. Walker and following your dreams.


Crisis: Tell me about growing up in Montgomery, Ala. What was your childhood like?
Octavia Spencer: We had humble beginnings. But my mom worked hard to make sure we had what we needed. I have six siblings. My mom was a single mom and she had seven of us.  My mom had a limited education. We didn’t have any money. So it wasn't easy for her, I imagine, raising us. But I have a strong familial bond with my siblings. It was the ‘70s and I can't imagine growing up now in the information age where we are tied to phones and electronics. Remember when your mom would say, “Go outside and play.” You went outside and you made mud pancakes. You played in the mud. People don't do that anymore. It’s very different from the way kids are growing up now. You know what I mean? It was very different. It was very Southern. It’s made me who I am.


Who were your role models growing up? Whom did you admire?
I admired a lot of people. When I think back, Oprah was around in the '80s. We grew up watching Cicely Tyson and the Norman Lear shows with Esther Rolle and John Amos, Good Times, The Jeffersons. So those were the Black images that we saw as kids. I grew up in the era of Charlie's Angels, all of those ‘80s shows, all the cop shows. We were taught about Dr. [Martin Luther] King and John Lewis and the Kennedys. My mom knew the story of Sarah Breedlove, Madame C.J. Walker, and she was like, “I don't want to hear anything. Your dreams should be bigger than you ever thought. Dream the biggest dreams because there should be no limitations on who you think you can be and what you think you can accomplish.”


When did you first know that you wanted to be an actress?
I wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to be an anchorwoman. I wanted to be a producer, and then I wanted to be an actor. I was drawn to Hollywood. There were periods that we had a television and that we didn't have a television. I remember during one of the periods that we had a television, I remember seeing people all dressed up at the Academy Awards. I didn't really know what it was, but I just remember people being sparkly and pretty and everybody being excited about being there and winning. So it was like, "I want to do that." I also remember being in awe of Esther Rolle, in awe of Cicely Tyson. I would also say it was definitely my earliest remembrance of watching television shows and seeing people who looked like me. I said, "I want to do what they're doing." I was very young. I could have been 6. I could have been 5. You know what I mean? But it was definitely in my formative years.


What did you learn from your character in The Help?
What I learned with Minnie is that it isn't about the glass being half empty or half full. You have to own the glass. If you don't own the glass, you don't have the wherewithal to know if it's full. So it was that [if] she owned the glass, she could make it as full as she wanted it to be or as empty as she wanted it to be. But during that time, she didn't own the glass, and I owned the glass. That was the difference. I'm like, wow. These women didn't own the glass.


You were also nominated for an Oscar for your role in Hidden Figures. I read that you bought out movie theaters so young people could see the film. Why was that important for you to do?
The fact that I didn't know this, that it wasn't a part of our teaching in history. Why wasn't that a part of our history when we learned about NASA in school? How do we not know that we were making these contributions? I thought it was very important that young girls, young people got to see those types of positive images of us. I also knew what it was like to not have those images growing up. I wanted to make sure that families got to take their kids during Dr. King’s holiday and it not be about money, but ... about enjoyment and the experience in seeing those images on the screen.


You play another very important historical figure, Madam C.J. Walker. Why did you want this role?
I wanted to be a part of the telling of her story because a few Black people know of a certain age, but the young ones don't. Especially in this time of strife and images of what you can and can't be or dream, you need to know your history. This is what we are the product of, this woman right here. If she did that during this time, the way my mom told me, "Your dreams should be bigger than you."


I wanted to be a part of telling her story because of what she was able to accomplish during that time period. Women didn't have the right to vote, but Black women definitely didn't have the right. She was self-made. She did things on her own terms. I think it was time for the world to know her story. She just put her head down and did the work. If she did that as a Black woman during the early 1900s, there's nothing that any young person can't do today. I want young people to know that no matter what is going on in society, put your head down, do the work. Be who you want to be. Whatever you want to be, put it out there in the world. Dream it.

How would you describe Madam C.J. Walker?
Madam is the little engine that could. She's the little engine that did. She started out as a little engine and she became the whole damn train. She wanted all Black women, because there were no products for Black women, to feel beautiful. She wanted Black women to feel beautiful. She created that space for us. That's not something that I think there's enough of in our society, for Black girls to know, "Honey, you are great. Your dreams are great.”  


You’ve been nominated for an Oscar for three different films. Did you ever dream that you would be where you are today?
You know what? I dreamed it for myself to be successful at acting and producing. An athlete dreams that they're going to be in the Super Bowl, or they're going to be in the NBA Finals, or they're going to be Serena and Venus in Wimbledon, you know what I mean? You dream whatever the highest honor of your field. You dabble in those dreams. What will my Oscar speech be? So yes, I dreamed that, and if you can't visualize yourself in that space of honor, you don't create the space for it to happen. So yes, I did dream it.


What have been the biggest challenges for you, a Black woman in Hollywood?
I think access to roles. There weren't a lot of roles and now there are. We're creating roles for ourselves. But there weren't a lot of variety of things that we could do. And pay — women of color, and that includes Asian and Latina women, especially character actresses, aren't paid the same. So it's all about bridging that gap, access to material. But I can't tell you that that's a challenge that I currently face because we are very vocal about it.


What are you most proud of?
I'm proud of the fact that I get to do ... I guess it's not even pride, it's a sense of gratitude that I'm getting to do what I love doing because so many people aren't doing what they love. They are just doing a job because it's a means to an end and to provide for their family. I get that, and I understand that you got to make sure your kids are fed and the responsibilities are met. I'm lucky that I get to do what I love to do every single day. I'm grateful because Madam, she paved the way.


— Lottie L. Joiner is editor-in-chief of The Crisis magazine.

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The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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