Netflix recently debuted a new limited series called Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Directed by Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, and executive-produced by LeBron James, the four-part series is a tribute to the first female millionaire entrepreneur in the United States. Madam C.J. Walker was an African-American woman born just two years after the end of slavery into a family of slaves-turned-sharecroppers. She manufactured and sold hair restorers and beauty products made specifically for women of color.
The acting is terrific, particularly Octavia Spencer in the title role. Spencer embodies this character whole-heartedly, to a point where I actually could see Madam C.J. on the screen in her every gesture and expression. I first heard of Madam C.J. Walker when I was an archivist at The American Film Institute in the 1970s, and we acquired footage relating to her. I believe there were several silent moving picture ads for her company that were made for showing in African-American movie theaters, such as existed in Baltimore and New York City.
Playing opposite Spencer are Blair Underwood and Tiffany Haddish, who also put in fine performances as Madam’s husband and daughter, contributors to building the remarkable Madam C.J. Walker empire. Garrett Morris, whom some will remember from his days on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, has a small role which he makes particularly memorable in episode three.
The time period is the first nineteen years of the Twentieth Century. The story takes the viewer from Madam’s days as a miserably poor, homely scrubwoman to a wealthy head of industry. Self Made captures this period with great detail. In fact, maybe too much attention is paid to the production values. There are too many bells and whistles, too much glitz which interrupts the story. Instead of telling the straight story of this incredibly successful and interesting businesswoman, Self Made adds fantasy dance sequences as occasional segues and even within scenes.
Even the story of Self Made feels over-produced, with a script that includes intrigues, illicit romances, a lesbian subplot about Madam’s party-loving daughter A’Lelia. With several failed marriages, was she really lesbian? Certainly, many current films have included gay and lesbian characters as selling points to many modern viewers. From what I have read, there is no evidence. She entertained many queer Harlem-based artists of the early Twentieth Century, but there is no evidence of her own preferences.
With all this business going on, the result is that the atmosphere goes from realistic to having a once-upon-a-time quality. With a subject as fascinating, under-recorded, and under-appreciated as Madam C.J. Walker, I considered that a frank, even monastic telling of her life story would be more fitting. Then I made note of the title of the series. It is called Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. It isn’t the life of; instead It’s inspired by the life of. To that end, Self Made holds an appeal for general audiences, an appeal not confined to the history lovers among us.
Furthermore, as one of the most aggressive and commanding money-makers of her time, Madam C.J. herself probably would have concluded that this particularly loose style of biographical story-telling was the preferable choice, much more popular with audiences than straight biography. Who really knows, but this Netflix series does provide a very pleasurable and, in many ways, illuminating three hours of entertainment.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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