“Hair is beauty. Hair is emotion. Hair is our heritage. Hair tells us who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.” – Octavia Spencer as Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker, in “Self Made.”
The story of Madam C.J. Walker is the rags-to-riches tale of a smart, ambitious, hard-working entrepreneur who became a great American success story.
Madam C.J. revolutionized the hair-care industry for black women, building a business that eventually went nationwide and turned her into the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. That she was an African-American woman who was born just two years after the end of the Civil War and made her mark in the United States of the early 1900s is the stuff of legends. Her life and times make for rich biopic material — or in the case of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” a solid and enlightening four-part limited series debuting Friday on Netflix.
Octavia Spencer carries the series every step of the way in a magnificent performance as Sarah Breedlove, who would come to be known professionally as Madam C.J. Walker. Spencer looks and sounds like she just came to life from a sepia-tinged postcard; there’s never a moment when we don’t believe her as the fiery, loving, fiercely determined and ceiling-shattering Sarah.
“Self Made” is a stylish, beautifully photographed period-piece biography/melodrama with a great look and crackling dialogue, thanks to directors Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) and DeMane Davis (they each helmed two episodes) and writers Nicole Jefferson Asher, Janine Sherman Barrois and Elle Johson, working from a book by Walker’s real-life great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles.
In Episode One, titled “The Fight of the Century,” we literally see Spencer’s Madam C.J. in the ring with Carmen Ejogo’s Addie Monroe, her adversary throughout the series. (The fantasy sequence is the first of a handful of stylized moments sprinkled throughout the series, almost always to great effect.) The beautiful and sophisticated Addie is running her own small but growing hair-care product operation when she meets Madam C.J. and hires her as a saleswoman. But almost from the get-go, the two are at odds. Addie doesn’t quite trust Madam C.J. (she might not be wrong about that), and Madam C.J. resents how the lighter-skinned and trim Addie has a more palatable public persona in certain circles.
“Even in your Sunday best you look like you just stepped off the plantation,” Addie tells Madam C.J. as she fires her.
Madam C.J. teams up with her husband, C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood), to start her own company, although the handsome and charming but not particularly ambitious C.J. quickly begins to sulk about his wife’s success. (The great Garrett Morris, playing C.J.’s father, smells trouble from the beginning of the partnership, telling his son, “Never get your money where you get your honey.”)
No matter. Even when a suspicious fire hits Madam C.J.’s headquarters, she will not be deterred. She’s not going to just sell hair products, she’s going to build a damn factory.
As the title indicates, this limited series is “inspired” by the true and amazing story of Madam C.J. Walker. Most of the main characters are based on real-life figures, but the usual creative-license liberties are taken with certain elements of the timeline and some soapy subplots involving duplicitous business dealings and torrid extramarital affairs and broken marriages. “Self Made” devotes nearly as much time to the domestic drama as it does to Madam C.J. navigating the racist- and sexist-infested waters of early 20th century America business (and oh is she good at it).
Blair Underwood, still as leading-man handsome as ever, does fine work playing this hiss-worthy Charles James Walker, who loves Madam C.J. but resorts to day drinking and taking up with one of the employees as he grows ever more resentful of his wife’s success. Kevin Carroll (as Madam C.J.’s business lawyer), Bill Bellamy as a slick investor and the aforementioned Garrett Morris are equally terrific.
One unfortunate bit of miscasting: I love Tiffany Haddish, but she’s just not right for the part of Madam C.J.’s free-spirited daughter, who rides a bicycle around the workplace during an important meeting, yearns to escape her marriage and spend more time with a female friend, and is dying to escape the rigid ways of Indianapolis for New York City. Haddish is only seven years younger than Octavia Spencer, and frankly, they look to be about the same age, making it nearly impossible to buy into the stern mother/incorrigible daughter dynamic.
Ah, but this is of course primarily the story of Madam C.J. Walker’s rise to unprecedented success as a businesswoman who employs and mentors and motivates hundreds if not thousands of young black women.
The soundtrack for “Self Made” is filled with anachronistic but pitch-perfect modern music. When Madam C.J. is doing her thing and we hear “Woman” by Diana Gordon or “Rise Up” by the Freedom Affair, it’s clear Diana the Amazon warrior goddess wasn’t the only Wonder Woman shaking things up in the early 20th century.