ABOVE PHOTO: Octavia Spencer
There’s a brief but informative piece on Octavia Spencer published by the New York Times this weekend which is recommended reading. In it, the Academy Award winning actress talks about what was effectively her entry into screen acting, working as a production assistant on the Matthew McConaughey/Sandra Bullock thriller A Time to Kill, directed by Joel Schumacher, who noticed her and asked her to read a small part for him – that of a nurse. It’s her very first screen credit. She also dishes on being a woman who also happens to be black in Hollywood, typecasting, and the delicate dance she’s had to do in not being afraid to ask for and getting what she wants (no post-Oscar curse for Spencer, as she’s been undoubtedly quite busy since her win for The Help), and expanding her talents beyond acting, to include author of a series for YA novels called “Randi Rhodes: Ninja Detective,” and producing – she tells a mostly-unknown story of how she had to “put money in” to help complete financing for “Fruitvale Station,” in which she co-starred, after the filmmakers lost $150,000 of the film’s $900,000 budget right before production began, and, in addition, “started calling all of my rich friends to buy $25,000 increments, or units” to make up the rest.
Sounding quite confident, and determined to break out of the box that Hollywood has apparently put her in (for example, as the piece notes, Ms. Spencer has played a nurse 16 times since A Time to Kill), she says, “I’ve yet to play anyone who remotely resembles me… I’m carefree. I don’t have kids. I’m more of a romantic comedy, dating the wrong people and trying to find love.”
She’s also determined to have a positive impact on Hollywood’s diversity problem, on both sides of the camera. She’s begun optioning books, and of special note, one of them is a book on Madam C. J. Walker!
The New York Times piece doesn’t say which Madam C.J. Walker book it is specifically, but it’s Madam C.J. Walker! Considered the first self-made African American woman millionaire, she was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, and went on to create specialized hair products for African Americans, which she invented in the very early 1900s. She promoted her products by traveling around the country giving lecture-demonstrations and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. She was also known for her philanthropic endeavors. There are a handful of books on Madam C.J. Walker in circulation, but the one that I immediately thought of is the best-seller that I think many of us are most familiar with, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” the “definitive biography” of Madam C. J. Walker, which was written by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. If Spencer, or any producer was to adapt any book on the life of Walker, I would assume this is the one they’d go with for obvious reasons. The first comprehensive biography of Walker, it was published in 2002 by Scribner.
Walker died of hypertension in 1919, at age 51, at the estate home she had built for herself in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time of her death, Walker was sole owner of her business, which was valued at more than $1 million (about $14 million in today’s money). In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Madam C.J. Walker as part of its “Black Heritage” series.
An appropriately-funded, high profile film (or TV miniseries) on Madam C. J. Walker is one that many have wished for, for as long as this blog has existed. Where Spencer is on the development of the book she’s optioned, isn’t public information at this time.
Whether Spencer would play the title role in the project (at least her latter years, while younger actresses are cast to play her as a child, and then a young woman), or only produce, isn’t public information at this time either. Given that we have no idea how the book Spencer optioned would be adapted, one can’t even say whether it’ll be a birth-to-death biopic, or maybe a film or miniseries that focuses on a specific period of her life; maybe when she created her specialized hair products, promoting them by traveling around the country, en route to becoming a self-made millionaire.
But at least, we can now officially add this to our list of bios to watch for.