Reel Reviews | Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

by Tim Gordon

The mythology of the first Black woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker is explored in the four-part limited Netflix series, Self Made: Inspired by The Life of Madam C.J. Walker.

Since the inception of this republic, there have been countless stories of creative visionaries that have built exorbitant wealth. At the turn of the 20th Century, forty years after emancipation, a former slave, Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer) is simply existing. Stuck in a loveless marriage, stressed out to the point of hair loss, a fortuitous meeting changes when she meets a kind hairstylist, Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), Monroe volunteers to try out her hair tonic on Breedlove, quickly restoring her hair and her confidence. Once Breedlove attempts to return the generosity by offering to sell her hair solution, she discovers that Monroe has no interest in the common Breedlove being associated with her product. Not to be deterred, Breedlove creates her own solution and goes into business for herself.

Now married to the handsome C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood), and rechristened “Madam” by one of her customers, she possesses a dual vision, one which will empower women, providing them with beautiful and healthy hair to give them confidence as well as building a shared business that will provide women with their own income.

Giving one of her strongest performances, Spencer perfectly anchors the story. Drawing on the dimensions of characters from past cinematic Jim Crow dramas such as The Help and Hidden Figures, Spencer draws on a reservoir of credibility and familiarity in projecting Breedlove/Walker’s struggles. It is not enough that she is disregarded for her appearance, color, and gender, she must also contend with a jealous rival in Monroe who relentless opposes her during her rise.

Blair Underwood, Octavia Spencer, and Tiffany Haddish from Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

While her husband preaches moderation, Breedlove/Walker pushes. Whether for new hair care products, a new factory, or growth of emerging markets, she literally wills herself to success over all of her detractors. She demands the most of everyone in her circle, her emasculated husband, C.J., attorney Ransome (Kevin Carroll), her no-count, shiftless son-in-law, John (J. Alphonse Nicholson), her sage and wise father-in-law, former slave Cleophus (Garrett Morris), but most of all her daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish).

Commissioned as four-part limited series, Self Made covers the crucial final years of Breedlove/Walker’s life. The additional time allows filmmakers Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou & Harriet) and DeMane Davis (Lift & Queen Sugar), who each directed two episodes, time to truly show various perspectives of her remarkable story, including her acquaintances with notable luminaries such as Booker T. Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith) and W.E.B. Dubois (Cornelius Smith Jr.)

After an uneven first episode, the series finds its footing over the final three installments bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. powered by the brilliance of Spencer. The weakest link in the story is Haddish’s who feels miscast among the ensemble of veteran actors. Despite a strong performance in last fall’s drama, The Kitchen, her interpretation of Leila feels out-of-place.

Overall, the episodic format was a perfect way to introduce Walker’s story and legacy to audiences. Far from perfect and laser-focused, Madam’s style may not have endeared her to everyone in her circle but this proud story of resilience, vision, and determination, as channeled through Spencer, does her journey proud.

Grade: B