“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” a four-episode limited series based on the biography “On Her Own Ground” by A’Lelia Bundles, was released on Netflix March 20. The show tells a powerful and important story in African American history with relative success, save for some issues with dialogue, melodrama and casting.
Starring Octavia Spencer, the historical drama follows Walker, an African American woman born in 1867 who became the first female self-made millionaire in America after founding Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a line of hair care products and cosmetics for black women. The series artfully depicts the hoops through which Walker jumped in her lifetime and uses theatrical elements of sound and tweaks of character interaction to welcome viewers into her mind.
Instead of relaying our protagonist’s life chronologically, the series chooses begin with Walker in middle age. It chronicles the events in her life from the time she decided to sell products to when she became worth nearly $1 million before being diagnosed with terminal kidney disease. The more intimate details of her life and emotions are told in a series of flashbacks and brief skits, such as placing her in a boxing ring to combat her business rivals, a dance line of dapperly dressed saleswomen of color prancing around an empty warehouse she wants to turn into a factory or the light-skinned model from her advertisement taunting her. These skits illustrate the development of Walker’s personal and professional growth and relationships throughout her life.
I was able to maintain engagement with Walker emotionally through the soundtrack. During scenes of Walker working on her products or celebrating milestones of her success with loved ones, the producers opted for upbeat rock or funk tunes. Yet during scenes of conflict, such as fighting with business competitors or encountering physical violence, scenes would fall silent not only of music, but natural sounds, drawing focus to the scene and impact of what happened.
The only facet that might be questionable to viewers is the dialogue between certain characters. Highly regarded actors such as Spencer, Blair Underwood and Garrett Morris have seasoned experience playing characters from the Reconstruction through Civil Rights eras. However, the outwardly abrasive manner in which some female characters speak to their male counterparts in the series was not common for the era. The script can only speculate what words caused the real life issues at the core of the series.
The show also introduces fictional characters, such as Sweetness, a pimp and hustler who attempts to swindle Walker’s lawyer into letting him invest in her company, and Dora, Walker Hair Company’s top sales agent who also becomes Walker’s husband’s mistress. The fictional characters in the series might represent a distillation of the real adversity Walker faced as she grew her company.
However, historical rumors also were exaggerated in the show, according to a historical analysis by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The way these rumors are blown out of proportion plays into the stereotype that black women have to be brusque and spiteful in order to get their point across.
From “Star Wars” to “Little Women,” powerful female leads have become more prominent in the past few years. “Self Made” adds new elements with the true story of a woman who achieved a legacy and financial prosperity without being deterred by naysayers who claimed she did not have the “right look” as a darker-skinned, heavy-set woman to sell her products. This series will enlighten viewers, as long as they are not distracted by fictitious vices placed for artistic effect.