Money is but one of many metrics by which someone can measure success. Yet, our culture loves to exalt the “self made” millionaire, even when the term “self made” can be as loose as one wants to define it. Few people define the title of “self made” better than Sarah “Madam C.J. Walker,” a woman born to slaves who rose from laundry woman to millionaire all during the 1900s-1910s. Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” takes a story many may not know and makes it entertaining, emotional and even cinematic. Led by an incredible performance from Octavia Spencer, this four episode miniseries makes for a breezy, yet important, viewing. For those looking for something to binge while stuck indoors, look no further than “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.”
As the title suggests, the miniseries spotlights Sarah “Madam C.J.” Walker (Spencer), the first black, female, self-made millionaire who built a hair product empire. Our story begins in 1908 St. Louis, where Sarah Walker works tirelessly as a laundry woman. The stress of the manual labor causes her hair to fall out. This drives her first husband to abuse and leave her. She seeks help from Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), a mixed race woman with a magical hair growth formula. As the hair treatments start working for her, Sarah realizes she can skillfully sell the product based on her own story. Unfortunately, Addie only sees Sarah as a lowly laundry woman and forbids her to sell the hair care products. There’s an element of colorism here, as Addie believes people will not want to buy beauty products from someone as dark as Sarah, nor as conventionally attractive.
Sarah turns her dejection into determination, as she puts her own spin on Addie’s formula and develops her own product. Now married to a kinder man with sharp marketing skills, Charles James “C.J.” Walker (Blair Underwood), Sarah opens up her own business. Appealing specifically to working class black women, Sarah gains notoriety selling her formula under her husband’s name. As business picks up, Sarah moves to a larger market. Her aspirations lead her to build a factory and establish herself as a national brand. These are broad strokes of where the four episode series takes us. There are more fascinating scenes of Sarah empowering other black women to be her salespeople, combating Addie Monroe as she attempts to steal market share and trying to earn endorsements from the likes of Booker T. Washington. Each episode has new nuggets of fun stories on Sarah’s journey to the top.
It goes without saying that Octavia Spencer is great. In fact, this may be the strongest work of her long career. Spencer perfectly embodies the “take-no-prisoners” attitude of a businesswoman with the vulnerabilities of being taken advantage of for so long in her life. As her business grows, Sarah’s confidence in herself grows. This means demanding more of her partner, C.J., and being harder on her daughter Lelia (Tiffany Haddish).
Among the supporting cast, Haddish proves “Girls Trip” was no fluke. Lelia appears to be more of a happy-go-lucky loose cannon, something Haddish has proven she can do. Yet, there’s a softer side to Lelia that Haddish unearths. She constantly lives in her mother’s shadow and feels underestimated at every turn. Though Lelia marries young, her sexuality evolves as time goes on and the Walker family rises in prominence. Opportunity and good fortune give Lelia more of a leash to explore and be wild. Yet, it also offers her a chance to thrive and pave her own way for herself. Haddish takes Lelia on a journey that arrives in some surprising, yet satisfying, places by the end.
Likewise, Blair Underwood is similarly strong as the man behind the name C.J. Walker. Initially, he supports his wife’s entrepreneurial efforts and uses his own marketing prowess to help the brand grow. Yet, C.J. is not immune to jealousy and misogyny, especially once Sarah laps him multiple times in terms of power and wealth. C.J. Walker remains a complicated figure that is given some interesting shading by Underwood’s portrayal.
As with “Hidden Figures,” it’s great to see these lesser known stories of extraordinary black women take center stage. The opening images highlight the importance of hair among black women and how that determines one’s social standing in the community. There’s an authenticity to Madam C.J. Walker’s story and how she managed to get rich serving an underserved community. Not only is her business struggle entertaining and rife with drama, it’s an important reminder that there are so many inspiring and interesting stories that still have yet to be told.
Stylistically, the series takes some risks in how it blends the period setting with modern day sensibilities. Contemporary music, such as the “Harlem Shake,” pops in for transitions, which underscores the groundbreaking milestones Madam C.J. Walker achieves. Yet, not every allusion works as well. An extended boxing metaphor that recurs in the first couple episodes feels both on the nose and unnecessary. Yet, a later episode’s use of bicycles in fantasy sequences has a rather effective payoff. Both Kasi Lemmons (who directs the first two episodes) and DeMane Davis (who directs the final two episodes) align on a strong visual language that makes “Self Made” pop with color and opulence. The turn of the century brims with color and promise, especially as Madam C.J. Walker makes a name for herself.
While this may seem like an odd comparison, “Self Made” succeeds where the David O. Russell film “Joy” fails. Despite having a very strong Jennifer Lawrence performance at the center, “Joy” dulls the main character’s business acumen in favor of more squabbling family drama. “Self Made” features plenty of family drama. Yet, the family drama adds a bit of spice to the involving core story of Sarah’s rags to riches tale, rather than distracts from it. In essence, “Self Made” is either made or broken based on the titular Madam C.J. Walker. Luckily, Octavia Spencer proves to be one of our most engaging and dynamic actresses working today.