Self Made, based on the true story of Madam C.J. Walker, aired on Netflix in 2020. This four-episode series covers her life from rags to riches. (Photo Courtesy of Ellie Thompson)
Madam C.J. Walker: the world’s first self-made female millionaire. Walker lived from 1867-1919 and many know her for the multiple hair products she created for African American women. She forged a path in a world discriminating against her both because she was a woman and black. She fought to create equality for black women through her products, but also through new jobs and opportunities.
Netflix highlighted this incredible woman through a short series about her life. But like many shows, for every breakthrough or good idea, the producers missed something in the delivery.
The producers of the show couldn’t go wrong casting Octavia Spencer as Sarah Walker. I personally admire her as an actor, and you can see her in many films similar to this: historical, inspiring, and pointing a finger at injustice, such as in Hidden Figures or The Help. One of the best things Netflix did was to feature her.
The first images you see in the show are elegantly dressed women with elaborate hairstyles, the voiceover tells of the culture behind hair, especially for African Americans, and how it can create a sense of identity.
Contrary to her legacy, when you first see Walker, she isn’t dressed up or fancy. You see her reflection in a dirty mirror and her ugly hair. Her husband comes in and (I presume) drunkenly hits her, calling her names solely based on how she looks. When he leaves, a tall woman stands at her door. Addie Munroe offers her a “magic hair grower” as the fix for all her problems. Only later do you find out the help wasn’t free — Walker had to deliver Addie’s laundry to get hair treatments. When Addie put Walker down because Walker has darker skin, she decided to make her own product and the competition begins.
From then on, Munroe and Walker are at each other’s necks to create the best business. Later episodes show Munroe using Walker’s son-in-law to steal secrets, both moving to a new city, and many more events until Walker’s factory and company win out.
While that is a short summary of all the events that take place, it gives the backstory to understand the following praises and critiques.
Because the format of the series is short, it becomes apparent that the show rushes through parts of the story. We never see anything about Walker meeting her new husband, from whom she would get her name. There is a large time gap between the third and the final episode, evident only by her separation with her husband and her new house. There is little mention of how her company grew from five workers to ten thousand, but it happened. These plot holes, in addition to others, many as they may be, do not seriously affect the watching experience, but it does leave you with questions.
“The plotlines that have been emphasized, or entirely cooked up, for the sake of juicing the drama — a threatening pimp named Sweetness (Bill Bellamy); a lesbian affair for Walker’s daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish); the wounded pride and unfaithfulness of C.J. Walker — are hackneyed and dull. And the dialogue, for the most part, just sits on the page,” said The New York Times. The plot felt too rushed, with many stories not explored, left for the viewer to wonder.
One thing discovered in my research stood out to me. Addie Munroe’s name should be Annie Malone. While it doesn’t affect the story, in an effort to be historically correct it seems strange to have changed the name of one of the most important characters in the show. It’s not that hard to do a bit of background research, but the producers villainized the character to create a story while diverging from history.
And these are issues before the social tragedies are addressed.
Those around her look down on her because she is a black woman, but Munroe also does because Walker is darker than her. This presents the stereotype that all black women want to be lighter. The discrimination present is heartbreaking, even if the show is not as effective as it could be. There is a separation between so many groups, from her husband not wanting to work under her to white men refusing to fund her company.
All this occurred during a time where African Americans could be lynched by whites for no reason and receive no justice. Because of that, viewers see Walker’s company success as a huge step towards the civil rights movement.
If you can look past the plot flaws, Self Made is worth watching, even if you only watch to see a few of the social justice issues of America’s history, ones that could be still seen now.