“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker" (291813)
Credit: Netflix

Now streaming on Netflix is “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” a look at the pioneering entrepreneur, activist, and philanthropist. It’s an inspiring story that needed to be told.

“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” written by Nicole Jefferson Asher and Elle Johnson, uses Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles’ biography. The series is directed by Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, and Lemmons also serves as one of the executive producers. 

There is an obvious creative choice by the team to present Madam Walker’s story in a modern way. Some of those choices fall flat while others soar, leaving a curious mix of entertainment.

Madam Walker (Octavia Spencer) is painted early as a woman with a vision. To wit, she often envisions herself in a boxing ring, a prizefighter, ready to knock out whomever and whatever might dare to stand in her way. The creative decision to mix modern music into the four episodes works sometimes, like when they decided to use L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” to underscore her boxing ring fantasy, but it can make you scratch your head in others.

Walker’s real-life rival, Annie Malone (Carmen Ejogo), brings up the delicate issue that African Americans have had since being brought, in chains, to this land, and that is about color and hair texture. One of the most piercing pieces of dialogue comes early, in act one: that Malone’s fair skin and “good hair” came about because the women in her family were raped.

It’s these two African American women—visionaries—who could not and would not join forces because of the deep-rooted hate taught and reinforced by the white race.

Walker is self-made, born to former slaves just after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. She becomes one of the richest self-made women in America of her time. That’s an amazing tale right there, but that she becomes wealthy because of pioneering hair care for Black people during turn-of-the-century America is mesmerizing.

I wish. I wish the series would have slowed down and allowed the audience more time with Walker as she built her empire, spent more time with her as she wrestled with self-doubt and prejudice. More time connecting the past struggles to the present because, and I think she would be surprised, for African American women, things are not booming. What would Walker say to that, I wonder?

Walker’s world looks like you are on a soundstage. Shame on the creative team. The colors they chose are jarring. It’s over-theatrical and not authentic to the time period. I won’t accept the argument that audiences, our audiences, won’t connect unless we throw a coat of paint over our history. A good story well-told is a good story well-told. 

And there is the issue of some bad casting choices. I offer as an example Walker’s daughter, Lelia, played by Tiffany Haddish, who is supposed to be 18 years Spencer’s junior. As her daughter she is absolutely miscast here and it’s a shame, because Lelia’s budding lesbian romance is one of the more interesting relationships presented in the series. I can only imagine the tremendous list of qualified and better-suited actresses not hired that could have brought such life to Lelia.

So we look to Spencer, whose performance saves the series. She’s an intelligent performer, keeping herself beautifully contained and thereby providing a sense of surprise and expectation in every scene she appears in.

The series doesn’t flinch in painting her as a tough woman; in short, she’s not a sympathetic character. She’s flat-out ambitious, driven, and willing and able to sacrifice her marriage and other close relationships in order to build her business. She’s done nothing different from what men have done before and after her. What happens next is predictable—she emasculates her husband (Blair Underwood), who cheats on her. She bullies her daughter, who hides her true self from her.

Underwood is solid, doing his best to bring some dimension to the supportive husband role. Walker’s lawyer (Kevin Carroll) and her father-in-law (Garret Morris) deliver believable and interesting performances, making you ponder what happened with the other odd casting choices.

I hope there will be more stories about the incredible Madam C.J. Walker. She deserves it. Her rags-to-riches story has more to teach us. We need her now more than ever, dare I use that cliche.

I wish. I wish the creative team would have rolled up their sleeves and given the viewer a stronger story and used music from that important era—maybe with some modern touches—and I wish (I wish) they would have convinced the brass at Netflix to fly the crew to New York’s Harlem and not get stuck on a movie set. I mean, what’s authentic about that? I dare say Madam C.J. Walker would not approve.