By Mel Perez
Madam CJ Walker is a truly fascinating figure by any measure. This is a woman who managed to accumulate a significant amount of wealth in a time when black women were discriminated against based on both their sex and race – and she did it all on her own. Thankfully, in ‘Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker’, Netflix has done her story justice and given us a beautiful, entertaining four-part miniseries that explores her rise to success.
Produced by and starring Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Octavia Spencer, the series follows Madam C.J. Walker from her humble beginnings as a washerwoman named Sarah Breedlove to her position as the founder and boss of one of the largest hair care and cosmetic companies in the USA – as well as America’s first female self-made millionaire. The series is based on the book, On Her Own Ground, written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles.
Weaving through fantastical interludes to bolster each episode’s plot and give us a dose of colour and kinetic energy, the miniseries tells an entertaining rags-to-riches story that explores themes of racism, sexism and fighting for one’s place.
You can read Madam CJ Walker’s story in the book written by her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles here. It’s also available as an audiobook.
While some may consider hair care a “frivolous” endeavour (as Walker herself is told by a community leader), the series successfully demonstrates that it’s not just hair. I can attest to this. Black women’s hair has too often been the source of controversy and envy. The opening monologue is particularly powerful, setting out an important truth: hair is an integral part of the black community, it’s how we see ourselves and want others to see us, and it’s how we communicate and tell our history.
Of course, Octavia Spencer gives a standout performance. She takes us on a believable journey from a beaten down woman, to one who comes up against walls established by those who would discriminate against her based on her sex or race – and she runs right through them. Even betrayals from those close to her won’t stop her from achieving her dream.
Spencer portrays Walker’s initial lack of self-confidence, her desire to be something more, her grief and the monumental strength that is at the core of this character with ease; she is also entirely believable as a character with the gift to share her story, a talent which draws black women in to buy her products and support her business.
Walker was a woman who would not let anything stand in the way of her dreams. Learning that those dreams included not only gaining money but uplifting women made me appreciate her more. For Walker, it was not just about hair; it was a way to make black women feel beautiful, and it was a vocation for black women to earn their own money and improve their status and always remain independent.
Following along on her journey is friend-turned-rival Addie Munroe, played by Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo gives the character a deceptive sweetness that hides a cunning nature; in fact, she is the polar opposite of Walker, and wants to tear other black women down rather than lifting them up.
The series makes the right decision, in my opinion, not to gloss over the controversial issue of colourism in the black community. Light-skinned with long straight hair, Munroe is considered the epitome of beauty and doesn’t see the darker-skinned Walker as an adequate person to sell her hair care products – the snub that prompts Walker to strike out on her own.
“Everybody wants a light, bright gal with silky hair,” Walker tells her daughter in the third episode. Even her husband supports that idea when he develops an ad for her products that features a light-skinned woman who is supposed to be the black version of the ‘Gibson Girl’. Walker echos what a lot of darker-skinned women have thought, which is that they have to work harder and be smarter than Munroe and the other light-skinned women who seemingly have it easier.
Talking of Walker’s husband, Blair Underwood gives an excellent performance as Charles James Walker – bringing warmth, seething anger and uncertainty to a character trapped between his genuine love for his wife and his jealousy about her success, which simmers into a feeling of emasculation.
The cast is rounded out by Tiffany Haddish, mostly stepping out of her comedic box to play Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter Lelia. Though Haddish is adequate in the role, it’s hard for me to suspend disbelief that they are mother and daughter when the actors are only separated by seven years in age. (In real life, Walker had Leila when she was around 18.) However, as a black queer woman, I did find myself invested in the queer storyline involving Lelia – and I won’t say any more for fear of giving away spoilers!
Though the story of Madam C.J. Walker has been featured in biographies and documentaries, this miniseries gives a refreshing look at the legendary woman. With strong performances from the cast, the story draws you in and leaves you wondering what will happen next, even if you’ve read your history books and ultimately know how it will end.
Just in time for Women’s History Month, Self Made gives us the story of a woman who succeeded against all odds – and it’s particularly great to see Netflix telling a story about black history that go beyond the slavery narratives that are popular sources for film and television.
Self Made is available on Netflix from Friday 20th March 2020