Self Made review – Octavia Spencer sparkles in inspiring Netflix drama

The story of Madam CJ Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in America, makes for an involving four-part series about groundbreaking entrepreneurship

At this profoundly peculiar time, with so much of our days spent at home trying to distract ourselves from the chaos that rumbles on outside, finding the right thing to watch has become more complicated than usual. Some have chosen the masochistic exposure therapy route, streaming films like Contagion and Outbreak, while others have opted for the warm comforts of escapism, craving the chance to fully immerse in a world or a story so far from our current reality.

For those in the latter group, the just-dropped four-part Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker might prove to be a well-timed tonic, a warmly entertaining period tale of ambition against all odds, of a woman who built an empire from the ground up brought to vivid life by Octavia Spencer. Despite one Oscar win and two nominations, it’s only been in the last year that we’ve seen Spencer allowed room to truly come to life. As effective as her performances in The Help, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water might be, they were restricted by certain limitations, giving us just a fraction of the actor we’re now able to fully see. Last year saw her on electric form in Luce, an underrated thriller about racial stereotyping, and Ma, a Midnight Movie elevated somewhere close to art thanks to her fascinatingly empathetic turn as a sexual assault survivor turned B-movie villain.

The role of Madam CJ Walker gives Spencer her biggest opportunity yet to shift from support to lead, playing America’s first self-made female millionaire, an extraordinary tale that makes for a mostly involving miniseries. Originally known as Sarah Breedlove, she 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 developed a hair product specifically tailored to help women of colour. Sarah’s hair, and in turn her life, is transformed but Addie rejects her impassioned requests to work together, choosing lighter-skinned women to represent her brand instead.

Sarah breaks out on her own and the two become trapped in a duel of sorts, both trying to capitalise on an underserved market. After marrying CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), Sarah becomes Madam CJ Walker and slowly grows a business empire that still exists to this day.

There’s an immediately involving propulsion to her story, the opening minutes of episode one gluing us to the side of a woman driven to succeed despite everyone around telling her to stop. While it’s a traditionally told tale of triumph against adversity, there are nuances as well, issues brought to light that too often get precious little consideration in a mainstream space, such as colourism in the black community, especially with regards to the world of beauty, and the importance of supporting black-owned businesses, of demanding more diversity at the very top of the food chain and implementing structural changes to make that possible. There are so many systemic hurdles in place for black women in business, still to this day, that watching Walker’s meteoric rise accompanied by a dedicated mission to help other black women rise with her makes for a rousing few hours at home.

But while Walker faces stumbles along her journey, so do we as viewers. Nicole Asher’s script does a solid job at squeezing the many details of Walker’s life into four entertaining episodes but the directors, including Harriet’s Kasi Lemmons, don’t always hit the mark. There are attempts to enliven the by-the-numbers biopic-plotting with stylish flourishes but they’re mostly always misses, most notably a silly fantasy boxing match between Walker and Monroe. There’s also an awkwardly miscast Tiffany Haddish as Walker’s daughter, proving to be as convincing in a period setting as Laura Dern was in last year’s Little Women, an out-of-place distraction within an otherwise impressive supporting cast.

It’s ultimately, thankfully, Spencer’s show and she’s in supreme command, selling every second of Walker’s story as well as convincing us, and hopefully any director that’s watching, that she deserves more time in the spotlight, proving her adeptness at whatever challenge might come her way. What remains most important about the show at this very moment is how transporting it feels, promoting an inspiring story at a time when we need it, a warm-hearted shift of focus from the bad all the way to the good.

  • Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker is now available on Netflix


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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