Self Made review: Octavia Spencer is striking as Madam CJ Walker but can't save Netflix's hurried miniseries
Self Made, the story of beauty magnet Madam CJ Walker, makes for an interesting four-part miniseries but remains hardly engrossing.
Anyone with hair on their head knows how little control one has over the way they look. Sometimes you wake up perfectly coiffed for the world, and ready to fight for love, freedom, and a pay raise. Other mornings as modern, independent adults, we know something as trivial as a “bad hair day” bothers us. Hence when the hero of Netflix's fresh, lively, and fast-paced period drama about the US' first 'self-made' female millionaire proclaims, “Hair is power. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose it,” it hits right home.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker chronicles the rise of the hair care pioneer Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer), a black entrepreneur whose “Cain versus Abel relationship” with her hair was the catalyst for a beauty empire that revolutionised 20th century ideals about female enterprise, African American commerce, and beauty standards for women of colour.
The four-part miniseries centers around the excellence Madam CJ Walker, a philanthropist and the founder of a company that gave black women economic freedom in the form of independent jobs and income.
However, the series feels hurriedly written, and moves along at a pretty rapid speed, as if it was a three-hour biopic on the hair culturist. Based on 'On Her Own Ground,' a book written by her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, the series journeys from Walker’s humble beginnings as a washerwoman to the self-made hair care magnate that she became.
Sarah Breedlove was born two years after the emancipation of slaves, living as a free woman but one with limited opportunities. She worked hard as a “washer woman” but suffered from severe hair issues, affecting her confidence, and how she was perceived by the wider world. In the dramatised version of her life, she gets taken in by Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), an entrepreneur who had developed a hair product specifically tailored to help women of colour.
Sarah’s hair, and in turn her life, is transformed. However, Addie rejects her impassioned requests to work together, choosing lighter-skinned women to represent her brand instead. This pushes Sarah to start her own brand of hair products, and captailise on an untapped market. After marrying CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), Sarah becomes Madam CJ Walker, and begins to grow a business empire that still exists to this day.
The show is sumptuously styled, with period-appropriate depictions of elegant 20th century costumes, from burgeoning cities of New York city and Indianapolis, to its dainty daytime tea rooms and raucous after-hours ragtime clubs, are fun and captivating to watch. As Sarah’s product line takes off, and she lands more investors, her character gradually shifts from wearing the plain cotton fabric to colourful, elegant dresses, towering suit vests, and hats.
Spencer as Madam CJ Walker is spectacular. The role of a pioneer comes naturally to her. She is equally vulnerable, and in many parts, optimistic about her dreams as she often reiterates how she wants to make hair care accessible for coloured women. Her long-simmering insecurities with Addie are emphatic. Her tenacity to become the best in business is clearly evident when she takes on the knotted, complicated politics of dressing down Booker T Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith) at a business convention for his patronising, dismissive sexism.
Blair Underwood as Sarah's partner is a force of nature as his growing sense of insecurity with his wife’s increasing independence (“You say ‘our’ company, she says ‘my’ company”) often borders on a volatile state. Her daughter, Leila (Tiffany Haddish), is a firecracker who provides moral support, even though the mother-daughter seem on different tangents when it comes to Leila's sexual preferences and partying lifestyle.
However, the show falls flat as soon as its protagonist begins to gain momentum. It almost begins to feel repetitive, as chemistry between the characters seems hardwired, losing any sense of familial intimacy.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is a wonderful tribute to yet another unsung hero, but hardly engrossing. It finishes too soon, and almost feels like patchwork. One wishes it had focused more on the self rather jumping to what she made next.
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