Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker follows the life of a female African American entrepreneur throughout the turbulent late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is regarded as the first self-made female millionaire in America.
Madam C.J. Walker had humble, unfortunate beginnings. She was born free just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but was subjected to financial, political and societal barriers as an African American woman. Slowly, she gained traction as a successful saleswoman, which became the foundation for the hair care empire she would eventually build.
Octavia Spencer stars in this short series as Madam C.J. Walker. Spencer is stunning in every scene and carries the weight of each episode. Spencer as young Madam C.J. Walker acts with incredible humility. She appears optimistic yet insecure and uncertain of herself in the opening scenes as she nervously hands out her hair-care products tailored specifically for African American hair. As the series continues she gains confidence and becomes incredibly business sauvy.
Spencer portrays this character development perfectly. She slowly begins to control every room she enters whether it be filled with salon clients, business investors, or ladies at church. Spencer’s acting truly was mesmerizing to watch as her and Walker blended into one cohesive character on screen. There was not a single moment where I was aware Spencer was acting, as a viewer Spencer was Madame C.J. Walker.
Blair Underwood as C.J. Walker, Madam C.J. Walker’s eventual ex-husband, was another actor that had a stand out performance. Underwood perfectly played a variety of identities, from the supportive husband, to adulterous disgrace, to the obsessive ex-husband. Audiences are left with no choice but to fall in love with his infectious smile and strong presence in each scene. His lovability made his downward spiral that much more upsetting to watch; he begins to be blinded by the gender norms Madam C.J. Walker consistently challenged and broke.
Tiffany Haddish, who played Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter A’Lelia from a previous marriage, matched the talent and energy both Underwood and Spencer exuded. Haddish plays a ditsy, fun-loving young woman that has to learn a lot before inheriting her mother’s company. This rendition of Madam C.J. Walker’s life cast A’Lelia as a lesbian, which is not historically accurate.
The decision to make A’Lelia a lesbian modernized the tale, yet this along with other details do not match the true details of Madam C.J. Walker’s life. To enjoy Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker viewers must accept that this series is not a documentary, but a fictional account of one of the most influential African American women in the early twentieth century.
At times the fiction seemed overpowering. Namely, the inclusion of special effects pulled viewers out of the trance created by Spencer, Underwood and Haddish’s superb acting. The special effects, like illuminating the sidewalk with neon purple or shining a bright pink spotlight on Madam C.J. Walker, seemed unnecessary. The acting and plot spoke for itself and did not need these drab, cheesy special effects.
Aside from the strange lighting special effects, the first two episodes feature Spencer and her business opponent Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo) in an imaginary boxing ring. They hash it out in full boxing garb, which came across as unnecessary to the plot. The vicious dialogue and shady dealing between Madam C.J. Walker and Munroe was sufficient to establish the competition between the two. There was really no need to include scenes of them physically fighting for their respective hair care empires.
Despite the missteps of including special effects and strange boxing scenes, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker was an enjoyable watch. The amount of downfalls and triumphs crammed into only four episodes made this series fast-paced, but not clumsy. The acting was outstanding, along with the authentic looking costuming and sets.