Self Made may have made the life of beauty mogul, Madam CJ Walker, accessible to a wider audience, but the miniseries under-delivered on historical depth.
The Netflix miniseries titled Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker depicts African-American Madam Walker’s transition from ‘washerwoman’ to prominent beauty mogul, businesswoman and philanthropist.
The series, which first aired on March 20 and is set in the early 1900s, focuses on Madam Walker’s (played by Octavia Spencer) endeavours to expand sales of her ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’ for the urban African-American woman. In real life, Walker worked for Annie Malone, selling her ‘Poro’ hair grower before formulating her own hair grower. Malone is the real life inspiration for Self Made’s antagonist, Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo).
Madam Walker’s products were made using petrolatum and sulphur, which healed scalp infections. According to African hair care information site, Thirsty Roots, before such commercial products, African-American women relied on bacon grease, butter or kerosene as hair cleaners and conditioners throughout the 1800s.
The series depicts Madam Walker’s motivation to start her business differently to the real life scenario. On the show, Addie Munroe rejects Madam Walker’s wish to be one of her sales agents, because she does not have the appearance desired by Munroe. Ejogo coolly delivers the line: “Coloured women will do anything to look like me, even if deep down they know they can’t.” This refers to Munroe’s fair skin and long wavy hair as opposed to Madam Walker’s dark skin and kinky hair.
The theme of colourism is threaded throughout the four episodes, such as when the advert proposed by Mr Walker (Blair Underwood) in episode three for the ‘Walker Girl’ features a tall, light-skinned woman. The drawing for the advertisement turns into an apparition as Madam Walker peruses it, with the ghost-like figure quipping: “I’m the look people want, especially your customers. Even you, Sarah (Madam Walker’s first name), admit it.”
Producer and lead actress, Octavia Spencer, is well known for depicting the struggles against discrimination that African American women experience, in movies such as The Help and Hidden Figures. Spencer did not fall short of a riveting portrayal, encapsulating the focus and resolve that Madam Walker would’ve needed for her rags-to-riches tale.
However, the overplayed tension between Munroe and Madam Walker becomes tiresome. According to Elena Nicolaou’s article about real-life beauty competitor, Annie Malone, for O, The Oprah Magazine, Malone was successful in her own beauty business and by no means followed Madam Walker around the USA, as seen in the show. Therefore, this tension feels misplaced.
Madam Walker is cited by the Guinness Book of Records as America’s first self-made millionaire, having amassed over a million dollars in assets by the time of her death in 1919. Walker ensured that her business expanded beyond hair product distribution. Using the Walker System, her sales agents were trained as ‘beauty culturists’, introducing customers to the use of a branded shampoo, pomade and hot comb.
A’lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker’s and author of the book that Self Made is based on, titled On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker. Reflecting on the show in an essay for The Undefeated, Bundles wrote that many people had expected a story of an African-American figure thriving at a time when racist lynchings were still common.
“Instead, they got a fantasy boxing match between two black businesswomen, a heavy dose of concocted colourism and relatively little about Walker’s philanthropy and political activism,” she wrote.
The series makes for easy watching with brightly saturated colour grading, interesting costumes and a simplistic script. However, after reading historical accounts of Madam Walkers’ life on the Learning To Give and BBC websites, the four episodes ranging between 45 minutes to an hour seem insufficient in delivering the robust detail, depth and seriousness that a remarkable story such as this deserved.
This valuable portion of African American beauty history is accessible to a greater audience, however, the repurposing of modern hip-hop hits and manic hallucinogenic episodes that Madam Walker experiences during flustered moments, disturbs the pace and authenticity of this “based on a true story” depiction.
Vuvu Rating: 6/10
FEATURED IMAGE: A photograph of Self Made‘s cover featuring Octavia Spencer as Madam CJ Walker. PHOTO: Leah Wilson