[Interview] Cinematographer for Netflix series ‘SELF MADE’ captures truth within the lens of history


Preston Barta // Features Editor

While cinema may be taking an intermission to help fight the spread of COVID-19, there are still many works made for the small screen that are proceeding as scheduled. Some digital releases are even being bumped up. This weekend alone, you can catch a slew of recent releases you may have missed in theaters from the comfort of your own couch. However, since we may be numbing our derrieres from house-sitting for the foreseeable future, you might as well engage with something with a longer runtime to pass the day. 

Netflix has a few new releases hitting the streaming waves on Friday. But the one more appropriate for family consumption (as well as educational to the now-homebound students) is the limited series SELF MADE: INSPIRED BY THE LIFE OF MADAM C.J. WALKER. In the four-part event, Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer (THE HELPTHE SHAPE OF WATER) stars as the titular woman who went from a laundress to America’s first self-made female millionaire. 

Born in 1867 on a plantation in Louisiana to parents who had been slaves, Madam Walker made a living washing clothes for families. The long hours of being exposed to toxic chemicals and hot water have done significant damage to her image. Her hair is falling out, and her husband says that she looks like a “mangy dog.” One day, she tries a hair product that claims to restore lost hair, and it works. Soon after, Madam Walker starts selling her own version of hair products and cosmetics to poor, working black women like her. 

Ahead of the series premiere on Friday, Fresh Fiction spoke with the series’ cinematographer, Kira Kelly (13TH), to highlight the central figure’s influence and the filmmaker’s process for capturing honest moments.

Kira Kelly on the set of ‘Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.’ Kelly, a cinematographer, works to tell a story the viewer can understand with the sound off. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Preston Barta: SELF MADE takes such a fascinating approach to biopic storytelling. Modern touches and experimentation are going on with its presentation. Is that what appealed to you the most, or was it something more on a thematic level that did?

Kira Kelly: “One of the biggest things that appealed to me about this project was having not done a period piece. I was super excited to tackle that era and play in that world. I knew that [Octavia Spencer] was going to be in it. I had high regard for her as an actress before this project, but working with her just exceeded every expectation. 

Then there’s this story of a black woman who overcomes all these mind-boggling obstacles. She forced herself by sheer will into success. It’s just one of those things where this determination is what we all need. As a black woman myself, working in a career that’s not traditionally one where you see black women, it’s a good reminder to do the work. I think Madam is an inspiration for everyone – black, white, male, or female – of willing things to happen and not to take no as an answer.” 

Madam’s drive to achieve success is infectious. What was that movie or work of art that caused you to chase being a director of photography?

“When I started on this quest of what I wanted to do, it was the GODFATHER movies that first got me. I couldn’t have told you then what a cinematographer was. I just remember thinking these movies look gorgeous. From there, it went to [Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and his 2000 film IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE]. Later on, I saw his other films, like CHUNGKING EXPRESS and FALLING ANGELS, which changed my life, too. But IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE was that movie for me that stopped me in my tracks and had me working towards figuring out what I wanted to be doing and how I wanted to be doing it. It’s the kind of story I want to tell.”

What I love about SELF MADE is how it can appeal to a broader audience. I could show this to my son one day when he’s in grade school and feel confident that it represents the era well without emotionally overwhelming him. 

“Yes. Absolutely. I have a seven-year-old daughter. As much as I can share my work – and she knows what I do – it’s nice to have something that she can share with others and say her mom worked on this. I am looking forward to showing her this one and talking about it with her. Younger audiences need to see something like this.” 

Was there a particular area that you gravitated toward most on a thematic level?

“This show is so uniquely written. I love all Madam’s self-reflective, internalized moments. There are moments, like the interstitials, that see us playing with the mirror motif. 

You can see people’s success stories, but then you realize there had to have been some level of self-doubt. I like that we were able to explore a lot with Madam’s internal moments and see how she grappled with never being able to stop pushing forward.” 

Octavia Spencer plays the title character in the colorful, stylish series ‘Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.’ Kira Kelly, a cinematographer, works to tell a story the viewer can understand with the sound off. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Is there a scene that you shot that you wish you could show Madam C.J. Walker to see what she thinks? 

“In the first episode, we start with [her] as a washerwoman. In the process of researching that era, it was physically tricky work to do what Madam did. The amount of manual labor it took to get something clean, and all the toxic chemicals they used to do it with–– it was disturbing. We tried to show how arduous that work was. 

As modern people, with incredible washing machines, I don’t think we can grasp how difficult that was for her to be working eight-to-ten hours a day in these conditions and make very little money. To see that as an accurate representation is a powerful image that stands out to me.” 

Earlier, you mentioned the interstitials. They are the scenes that break up the flow of the narrative to provide symbolic meaning to Madam’s internal struggles. It’s a nice touch that brings the project into the modern era, such as the concept of being in a boxing match, taking the gloves off, and hitting below the belt when in a competition with someone in any aspect of life. 

 “Yes. We wanted each episode to have an interstitial, and we wanted each one to have its own feeling and look. We wanted it to be a place that we knew we could get into Madam’s mind. 

In the first episode, for example, the boxing one, [director Kasi Lemmons, who directed two of the four episodes and 2019’s HARRIET] wanted it to feel like a boxing match from that time. The whole idea was to have audiences question what’s going on and throw them off. Ultimately, however, we’re showing Madam coming into her own, very literally. In the second episode, it gets more colorful and playful. Each chapter takes on its own feeling and offers an introspective view. 

The showrunners and Netflix were clear at the beginning that they did not want a sepia-toned biopic. I love those, but we all wanted it to be more colorful and have a modern twist. That color is not only visible on the set and apparent in the film color grade but also in Madam’s outfits. We didn’t want anything to feel standard.” 

Something I noticed about your filmmaking technique from watching the series is how reactionary you are. Like David Fincher (creator of Netflix’s MIND HUNTER and director of FIGHT CLUB), you observe human behavior very carefully with the camera. At what point in your career did that become an essential component of filming characters?

“I went to film school, and I had this excellent teacher named Thomas Gunning. His classes were not practical. It was all theory. They were my favorite classes when I was studying. He showed us so many films. 

It’s easy now, as a [director of photography], to depend on dialogue to tell the story. But if I have done my job correctly, somebody can look at the footage with the sound on mute and know what the story is. That’s always been my goal. We can have a close-up, but maybe there’s something we can alter with the eye level or change the positioning that could say something about the story. It’s a constant challenge and question of: Am I telling the story visually? Film is a visual language. We have our own words and sentences in each image. It’s a test that I like to give myself.” 

Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood play the power-couple at the center of ‘Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.’ Kira Kelly, a cinematographer, works to tell a story the viewer can understand with the sound off. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Do you crave the quiet moments more than dialogue-driven ones? 

“There are direction notes in the script about the quieter scenes, but they are my favorite scenes. I love scenes with just an actor and no dialogue, but it still shows what they’re going through. Working with an actress like [Spencer] is such an honor because she can do so much with the slightest bit of movement and facial expressions. It was mesmerizing to watch her.” 

How important is it to you to have a strong communication with other departments, like the film editors, the music department, and the visual effects team? It seems like you each rely on each other. Do you work with them actively on set?

“Music-wise, there were a couple of songs that I knew about before filming. I knew the tone and the music of the dance number and foot tapping. The modern music [that was used during post-production], I didn’t know as much about. I knew there was a plan to use it, but not what direction they were going to take it in. For the montage, we knew there was going to be a fast pace. So, it was shot in such a way that it would work within that sequence. 

On the computer graphics side, we were lucky to have someone on the effects team working with us every day on set. For daytime exteriors, we have to be aware of all the modern elements. The art department would do all that they could to cover that up, but we had to lean on the effects work to take out power lines and air conditioning units. We also have this explosion that happens in one of the episodes. It’s funny because when you think of period pieces, you don’t necessarily think of heavy visual effects work. But they definitely add a lot as far as layering the texture.” 

Lastly, when you watch other cinematographers work, do you like to know how they achieved individual shots or looks, or do you distance yourself from understanding the technical secrets?

“I like the first viewing of not knowing how something is done. If there’s a new movie coming out and I know I want to see it for the cinematography, I’ll go and see it once. Then, I’ll read the American Cinematographer magazine about it and see it again. The war film 1917, for example, even though, yes, I’m a DP and can’t help but look at things from that angle, I still watched that movie with a love for its story. I want to step in more as an audience member and then focus on craft the second time.” 

Watch SELF MADE on Friday, and look out for Kelly’s work on the upcoming television series adaptation of Y: THE LAST MAN, based on the post-apocalyptic science-fiction comic book series.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.