Netflix’s Self Made, starring Octavia Spencer, comes with a lot of spunk and inspiration, and it makes it a must-watch for this black history legend.
Learning about history and significant figures isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker exceeds those types of expectations. The series stars the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer with an amazing supporting cast, and you’ll quickly get the feel that you’re watching just another one of Netflix’s outstanding dramedies — not sitting through a boring history lesson.
Technically, as the series states in the title, this is inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire. The series was adapted from Walker’s biography On Her Own Ground. But with that being said, the “inspired by” stands as a caveat to say not every event you will see in this series is 100 percent accurate. So while you can’t revel in the fact that these scenes accurately depict a surprising made-for-TV life, there has to be some suspension of disbelief. The same can be said for Roots or pretty much any TV series or movie adapting a true, historical event.
Still, from the trailer, you can tell that this series wants to put itself in the middle ground of being true to the time period and the trials that Walker went through building her haircare empire, while also putting a modern television spin on it. Sometimes the characters get a bit foul-mouthed, they speak a little more “21st century” than “19th century,” and you’ll get your healthy dose of hip-hop music to transition you between scenes. It’s similar to 2013’s The Great Gatsby, but you have to give it up to a series that tries to create its own historical-yet-modern sense of style.
Over the course of four episodes, spanning less than an hour in length, we see the arc of Walker’s adult life as a business person. The Walker in Self Made starts with an abusive husband, quickly losing her hair and feeling all-around worthless. She takes a stand to leave her husband and remarry, and it isn’t until she meets haircare connoisseur Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), that she gets her hair to grow back better and stronger, and she feels confident about herself again. But right from the first episode, the series explores two of its most prevalent themes in the series: black hair and colorism.
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Addie represents the mixed-race woman who has a light complexion and what the black community would call “good hair” (a heavy topic that’s worth a story all on its own), hair that’s finer and closer to European hair. Walker has a rich dark complexion and uniquely beautiful kinky hair. While she finds confidence in herself with her skin color and hair and even her size, she’s always confronted with America’s beauty standards — celebrating women with European-like features over features like hers.
While a lot of shows and movies nowadays have had no problem addressing racism, very few discuss the own internalized racism that happens in the black community — Aa sinister idea addressed by William Lynch that says the best way to keep blacks down is to have them turn against one another. By focusing the story on a successful, dark-skin woman, it shows viewers that there is beauty in everyone — especially darker women. And it’s inspiring to see Walker stand above the criticism and promote her brand despite what the haters (to put it bluntly) have to say.
As Walker takes Addie’s haircare formula and builds it into her own, the two then grow into rivals, with Addie constantly a thorn in Walker’s side as she levels up in each episode. Still, at one point, it almost seems like the two come to an agreement when Walker sticks up for herself at a conference with the famed Booker T. Washington. Walker preaches a message of equality, calling for black women to be supported as entrepreneurs and not just housewives. Needless to say, the series itself has a lot to say about the plight of black women, but every moment comes with an inspiring touch, carefully woven into the narrative — it isn’t just forcefully or haphazardly thrown in.
That, in and of itself, is probably the most wonderful thing about Self Made — it’s a story on screen for people whose stories aren’t always represented on screen. In a few scenes, we get to see black hair being cared for, being done and made up, and just the overall struggle any black woman goes through to find the right product for their hair. With brands on the market today like Shea Moisture, Kinky Curly, Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern or even the throwbacks like Luster’s Pink, it’s not hard to recognize that the abundance of black hair products in the market now is greatly due to Walker.
Outside of that, the show still comes with the elements of a great series, and the cast of characters adds to it. Tiffany Haddish plays daughter Lelia who represents the next generation of women even more progressive than Walker. Haddish brings her own flair for comedy into the mix, and as Lelia, they even tackle what it means to be a black woman exploring her sexuality at the turn of the century. Blair Underwood plays husband C.J. Walker, who excels in the role as his wife’s supportive-at-first husband. And Garrett Morris, who plays Walker’s father-in-law, is a personal standout in the series. Fans of his work will love seeing him on screen again, and he’ll probably remind viewers of their parents or grandparents who talk at length about how hard they had it back in the day. (To be fair, Morris’ character was born a slave, so his rants are justified.)
While I would love to recommend families show this to children as a way to inspire young girls or all younger generations, the episodes come with their fair share of adult themes. But for the more mature audiences, it’s definitely a must-watch in the way it champions representation, equality, feminism and so much more. Even then, Walker is a product of the American dream. The bootstrap narrative may not be so accessible for everyone. But it still inspires hope that you should never give up on your dreams.
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Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker begins streaming on Netflix March 20.