Academy Award® winner Octavia Spencer stars as Madam C.J. Walker, the trailblazing African American haircare entrepreneur who was America’s first female self-made millionaire. Inspired by the book, On Her Own Ground written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, the Netflix original series, SELF MADE: INSPIRED BY THE LIFE OF MADAM C.J. WALKER brings the uplifting story of this cultural icon to the screen for the first time. Against all odds, Walker overcame post-slavery racial and gender biases, personal betrayals, and business rivalries to build a ground-breaking brand that revolutionized black haircare, as she simultaneously fought for social change.
Self Made Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is a a fun watch that encourages you to watch all 4 parts in a single sitting. Watching Self Made is like watching an off-Broadway play. The acting is really impressive with Octavia Spencer providing a wonderfully accessible portrayal of the late great Madam. There’s a drive and passion reflected in Octavia’s performance that really resonates. The ambition, the motivation, the scope of what Madame C.J. Walker accomplished by becoming the first self made woman millionaire is an incredible accomplishment, especially for a black woman in that social climate. Watching a romanticized version of that story unfold is both entertaining and, to a degree, educational.
Octavia wasn’t the only great performance as Carmen Ejogo as Addie was also fun. Her character also experiences an evolution on screen as the Madam’s rival. These two have a chemistry that is palpable throughout the series and carries the narrative from beginning to end. I began watching this series with the expectation of only watching 1 episode at a time. I ended up binging the entire series all at once after seeing the rivalry develop in the very first episode. It’s interesting to note the commentary in their rivalry and how it boils down to the “crabs in a barrel” scenario over time. This is a tough, but real, subject to see within the black community and that authenticity is appreciable.
The pacing of Madam CJ Walker lends itself to be aired on television with each episode leaving you wanting more at the end. There’s a presentation that is very reminiscent of a stage play or a soap opera that encourages you to be invested in the characters and their arcs. From the Madam’s ascension to her daughters sexual exploration and evolution to Garett Morris’ words of wisdom from the perspective of a liberated former slave there’s so much to see and unpack. If I’m a snob about it then it’s obvious, to me, that this is actually a 3 hour movie broken into 4 parts. With that, I appreciate the intermissions of each episode and how they use the technique for us to explore a different stage of development for our cast.
Unfortunately there are a few performances in the series that fell a bit flat with both Tiffany Haddish and Blair Underwood being the main culprits. Blair is fantastic in what he does but it seems he tends to play thematically similar characters throughout his career. As soon as he appears on screen and speaks I can predict his entire character arc from beginning to end and it’s absolutely accurate. Tiffany Haddish is a fantastic actress but the script and casting here seems a bit off with her portraying a character that seems to be a teenager but talks like a contemporary New Yorker. I understand that they used dialogue that’s relatable and understood by today’s audience but something gets lost. Also, I have a love hate relationship with the stage play type of presentation but I lean more toward the hate here. I wanted to see things pushed up to a more cinematic level with the camera work and scene construction but that’s an admitted pet peeve of mine.
I really enjoyed the series and easily recommend this one to others, especially women looking to be inspired. The acting is fantastic, the pacing is on point, and the message resonates. A few missed opportunities and underwhelming performances are not enough to ignore the magnificense of Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.