Madame C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was an independent, wealthy businesswoman; a pioneer not only in Black Hair Care but invented the direct sales method that cosmetic companies such as Mary Kay and Avon later adopted and still use today. So naturally, when it was announced that Netflix was developing a mini-series starring Octavia Spencer as the famed innovator, much excitement was generated in the air.
Self Made takes place not long after Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Black People are fleeing the south to the north in search of new opportunities. Sarah is one of those new residents. She’s relocated to St. Louis working as a washerwoman while dealing with hair loss that contributes to her low self-esteem. Addie Malone, portrayed by the charming Carmen Ejogo, was a pioneer in hair care. Ejogo as Malone is confident but demeaning. She teaches Madame how to care for her hair. The interaction sets the tone for the series and Madame C.J Walker’s new career quest.
The different approach to haircare enables the audience to understand why Sarah was able to reach a broader clientele. Annie only wanted a specific type of woman advertising her products. Sarah wanted every woman to feel beautiful. The marketplace scene where Octavia is standing talking to fellow washerwomen shows how she understood that every woman deserved to feel beautiful. Her sales pitch is filled with empathy not judgement.
Her path next takes her to Pittsburgh, PA. We are starting to get a sense that she’s grown into a formidable businesswoman. The whole family is involved in the business. This dynamic, while practical, contributes to drama. There is no proper explanation for this drama other than greed. Sarah goes from being unsure to determined. A woman that used empathy and understanding to grow her business now closes off the very people that contributed to her success. The audience deserved to understand that her ambition steamed from a place of fear, fear of not being good enough. That accumulation of wealth wasn’t enough. She needed to be more successful than Addie since she could never match her in looks. Instead, we get a Madame C.J Walker that is short-tempered and demanding. It is challenging to admire someone when they come across as cold. The actors aren’t at fault but storytelling is choppy.
Octavia Spencer, as Madame C.J. Walker was a good pairing. She is commanding and transforms from an insecure country girl into a confident businesswoman. You’re cheering for Madam when she shares her idea of building her warehouse. Her whole family is afraid that her new quest will falter the business; however, Madame C. J Walker realizes that being in charge of the packaging, will enable her to reach more clients.
Veteran actor Blair Underwood matches Spencer’s strength as Charles Joseph Walker, from whom Sarah would earn her known name of Madam C.J. Walker. Underwood dives head into the portrayal of the conflicted C.J. He’s proud of his wife’s accomplishments; however, he does not feel valued. It’s his gift for marketing as well his name that’s helped place the company at the forefront. Blair’s performances evokes a sense of empathy.
We are heartbroken for C.J when he shares his new marketing idea with Madam; however, she immediately dismisses him stating they have “bigger fish to fry.” C.J Walker musters his composure while feeling disrespected as a man as well as partner once again. We know that this a turning point in their marriage.
Tiffany Haddish has ventured into more dramatic roles as of late however is still coming up short once again as Leila. The audience never gets to know Leila but instead receives Tiffany in a costume. Comedian Bill Bellamy as Sweetness gives the series a little edge while the surprise performance comes from Saturday Night Live alum Garret Morris as Cleophus. He’s charming and funny as C.J Walker’s father. Dispensing elderly wisdom as well as reminding his very bossy daughter in law that he is now a free man.
Essential issues that Self Made deals with are colorism and acceptance. Black Women felt the need to straighten their hair because it would give them a more acceptable appearance. Addie viewed herself as better than Madam C. J Walker for having fair skin and good hair. She felt as though Madame C.J Walker, with her dark skin and kinkier hair couldn’t compete. These are issues Black Women still deal with today.
While the series does an excellent job of dealing with problems within the Black community, it at times diluted Madam C.J Walker’s Story. It too often relied on modern symbolism via contemporary music to give viewers an insight to black life in the late 1800s. The audience never receives a real sense of what the camaraderie of beauty shops represented. Beauty shops are a staple of the Black community. It is a place where women not only share stories but often gather to become educated on national affairs. We also didn’t get a good sense of Madam C. J Walker as a philanthropist and educator, despite a life that included contributing to The Tuskegee Institute Scholarships, Anti-lynching funds, and more. She was the first to have a convention for her sales force. She invested proper training and education for her Walker Girls, the moniker for her sales force.
The series, at times, seems to lack that detail or direction. Kasi Lemmons’, fresh off directing Harriet, directed the first two episodes as well as executive produced. DeMane Davis (Grey’s Anatomy & Station 19) directed the later chapters, which don’t always seem cohesive.
Self Made will introduce a new generation to this remarkable woman which is the advantage of this series; however, the disadvantage is that the audience will only get a glimpse into Madam C.J Walker instead of a full vibrant picture.
All four parts of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker premiere exclusively on Netflix March 20.
Kathia Woods is a movie critic/entertainment journalist out of Philadelphia, PA. She’s the creator of Cup of Soul Show, an online outlet that covers minority creatives in film, television, and music. She’s a contributor to Mark and Denise in The Morning on 860 A.M WWDBAM.Com, and has covered Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Philadelphia Film Festivals. Kathia was born in Munich Germany but is of Brazilian descent. She is fluent in five languages and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Temple University.