'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker': Netflix series is a charming ode to the black woman entrepreneur
'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker' is remarkably made and packed with honest, raw performances
Spoilers for 'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker'
"Madam CJ Walker will make sure all your dreams come true," Madam CJ Walker (Octavia Spencer) announces to a team of salesgirls for her company. Working for Madam CJ sure meant better money, recognition, but more importantly, it meant respect - respect that was denied to the African American community even after four decades of liberation.
Inspired by the book 'On Her Own Ground' written by A'Lelia Bundles, Netflix's limited series 'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker' narrates the story of how Madam CJ Walker became a pioneer in the African American hair care and beauty industry.
The immensely personal account is written by Bundles, Walker's great-great-granddaughter, and chronicles her ancestor's contribution to not just the beauty industry but also her generosity towards educational institutes, social services organizations, cultural institutions.
The Netflix original series stars Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer in the lead role as Sarah Breedlove on her journey to becoming Madam CJ Walker.
Born into freedom just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Sarah might have had empty pockets but boasted a heart full of determination. But before she could pave the way for thousands of working women and entrepreneurs, Sarah was diffident. A mere washerwoman, she barely made enough to get by through the day. Under those circumstances, she raised her daughter Lelia (Tiffany Haddish in a marvelous performance).
When she met Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), who would go on to become her strongest competition, Sarah suffered from serious scalp ailments. As most black women of her time, Sarah suffered from severe dandruff, baldness caused due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products such as lye.
Addie helps Sarah grow new, healthier hair with her magical hair cream. Seeing the amazing results on her, Sarah proposes that she become a saleswoman and work with Addie - 'together they could make so much money!' Sarah coaxes her. But a light-skinned, proud Addie cannot have someone like Sarah be associated with her product and dismisses her proposals altogether.
After facing humiliation at Addie's hands, Sarah decides to go her way, eventually moving to Indianapolis with her daughter and very supportive husband CJ Walker (Blair Underwood) to begin afresh. Sarah dreams of building a factory, of leaving a legacy behind and immediately starts working towards it - nothing is going to stop her now.
But women do not walk the same path towards success as men do. Hurdles aren't just meant to deter women but to pull back anyone attempting to venture out. Sarah's path was riddled with obstacles - if it wasn't from those who wished women remained in their place, it was from the deeply-rooted belief that a woman is less of a wife if she does not abide by traditional conventions.
Sarah's very supportive ad-man husband CJ quickly does a u-turn. After moving to Indianapolis, Sarah dedicated herself to building a ground-breaking brand revolutionalizing black hair care. But CJ's insecurities begin creeping up on him, and feeling unvalued, he seeks attention elsewhere, unfortunately for him, despite a warning from his father Cleophus (Garrett Morris).
Her biggest rival comes as her biggest business competitor Addie, who, over the years, employs some of the most vicious attacks on Walker, her business and indirectly, her family too. Her rabid desperation to one-up Sarah stems from her quick dismissal of a strong, level-headed businesswoman those many years ago.
A revelation made much later in the series threatens to malign decades worth of Madam CJ's toiling. Yet, unfortunately, Addie and Madam CJ could be considered a lost cause - two passionate women who could have worked together and made strides but were lost in the chore that is market competition.
Despite adversities, Madam CJ Walker goes on to become a cultural icon overcoming post-slavery racial and gender biases.
There is perhaps no one other than Octavia Spencer who could have possibly portrayed Madam CJ Walker. Her performance is spellbinding, carrying a permanent glint of hope in her eyes. Throughout the four episodes of the limited series, Spencer carries the series on her shoulders, never once faltering under the weight of the dynamic storytelling.
Her acting prowess performs hand-in-hand with that of Tiffany Haddish's. Playing mother and daughter, the actresses work wondrously together - Spencer never once encroaching on Haddish's playful energy and Haddish abiding by her on-screen mother's rigorous rage.
'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker' is remarkably made by Nicole Jefferson Asher with co-showrunners Elle Johnson and Janine Sherman Barrois. Directed by Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, the series is thoroughly enjoyable, packed with honest, raw performances.
All episodes of 'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker' are currently streaming on Netflix.