Genre: Drama, TV Mini-Series
Release Date: 20 March 2020
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, Carmen Ejogo
The inspiring story of trailblazing African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker who built a haircare empire that made her America's first female self-made millionaire.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
I've often criticized Hollywood, not for the number of period dramas surrounding slavery and it's aftermath, but for the nature of the stories it chooses tell. It often feels that these movies and shows are more interested in being emotional suffering porn, always wrapped up in the degradation inflicted than the defiance and strength it took to endure. It also seems less about the emotional catharsis of exploring this incredibly dark period in American history than it is about giving America yet one more chance to dislocate its shoulder patting itself on the back for “how far we've come”, as illustrated by how many fewer stories we see about how far the country has yet to go.
So, when I saw the promos for Netflix's show about the life of Madam CJ Walker, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist, I was intrigued and encouraged. I mean as story about an African American who went from sharecropper to a millionaire in the time of Jim Crow, aka slavery by another name, is definitely a tale of grit and determination. (She wasn't the first black millionaire as is often said, but it's still an incredible accomplishment). Add to the color her skin her gender, being a woman during a period when women didn't even have the right to vote, and it becomes even more stunning. It's a story of triumph, not just torturous endurance. Which is probably what makes what we got with this adaption of CJ Walker's life a real disappointment that falls far short of triumphant.
When we first meet Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer), CJ Walker's given, maiden name, she is just managing to scrape by doing laundry. Her battles with a deteriorating marriage, poverty and low self esteem are taking their toll on her mentally and physically. So much so that the stress is causing her hair to fall out. But then, at her lowest moment, along comes Addie Munroe. An educated, attractive, light skinned black woman who's selling the hair grower cream she's developed specifically for black women door to door. Seeing Sarah's pain she makes it a mission to help, treating the hair loss in exchange for Sarah's washing services, sparking a friendship in the process.
Or at least so it seemed. After she is spurned by her supposed friend while asking to become a sales agent for Addie's company, basically told she was too ugly to be associated with the product and spoken to as no more than the hired help, Sarah makes it her mission to develop her own hair care products and build her own company. A solid set up, right? So where did it all go wrong?
Well, the first thing I can say didn't work was a sound and visual style that seemed far too modern and out of place in this period piece. Perhaps more prevalent in the first episode, many of the quick cuts and time manipulation edits made it feel more like I was watching a music video than a period epic. The soundtrack was rousing and fitting when it had a more gospel and even 70's Blacksploitation funk, feel, but the modern hip hop and r&b stuck out like a sore thumb. To the point of being distracting. I get why they would want to include those, having all the rich musical history of African-American culture represented, but having it pop up during the show rather just at the beginning or end of an episode often took me out of the moment where they were featured.
This is all on top of writing that sometimes came across as hokey and cliché and an editing style that made it feel like some kind of night time soap opera. Sometimes it felt as if I was watching an episode of “Dallas” or “Melrose Place” instead of this high budget, character driven period piece.
There was also the somewhat stereotypical and trite way many of the most featured male characters are written. Whether it is her son-in-law or her husband, Mr. CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), they are presented as inept or just resentful of a powerful woman. Except Mr. Walker bent over backwards for years supporting her dreams and endured the snide comments and jokes by other men, including his own father, for his trouble. It only reached a head when, after years of non-stop growth of the company, it became clear that it was straining their relationship and Madam CJ had to choose between making time for him or ignoring him for the company and she clearly chose the latter. We've seen that archetype in female centric stories before only it's usually the husband ignoring his wife. When that happens the husband is almost always portrayed as the jerk in that situation, rightfully so. But, somehow, when the situation is turned on it's head and it's the husband being ignored it's the ignored party that's in the wrong. (His response was wrong, but it was also predictable and easily understandable).
[SPOILER]As for the son-in-law, the aspiring musician, who winds up betraying Madam CJ to Addie, there's no question it was a dick move. Then again, Madam CJ had never had a kind word to say about the dude from the second she met him. No doubt he wasn't exactly the hardest worker (and he was probably responsible for a near disaster than nearly cost her the company... that's a biggie), but it was clear from the beginning he had a different dream. Never was there an attempt to help with that, which would have been another small business for the family. No mentorship, no advice, no attempt to help him achieve where it's talents and interests actually lay. Hell, he couldn't get hired on as entertainment when she hired a band for a big party she was throwing (yet her nearly tone deaf daughter got to get up in front of the crowd). Again, I'm not saying he wasn't wrong, but I'm not going to pretend I was shocked. Turns out being hypercritical, rude and dismissive of someone for years isn't' a great way to garner loyalty. Who knew?[/SPOILER]
In the end the only male characters who are shed in any decent light are the men with near sycophantic devotion to Madam CJ. That would be be her lawyer and her father-in-law. The lawyer would never dream about criticizing or uttering a cross word and her father-in-law is more than happy to shame his son for not having his own business (even has he helps Madam CJ grow hers) and tells him to be careful about flirting, but couldn't be bothered to tell his daughter-in-law to pay more attention to her husband if she's interested in keeping him. The theme is as clear as it is shallow. If you tell Madam CJ she's doing everything right you're a hero. If you push back against her with a different opinion you're a disloyal villain.
Speaking of villains, that brings me to my last bone of contention with this series. The main villain of this saga is the Addie Munroe, the “bright skinned” proprietor of Madam CJ's main competition in the beauty market. Something about the character's utter devotion to screwing over Madam CJ because of a falling out they'd had years ago just felt unrealistic so I looked it up. Sure enough, Addie Munroe is not a real person.
However Annie Malone is. Annie was another black woman in the beauty and cosmetics market with whom Madam CJ got her start. She was actually hired by Annie as a sales rep. They did seem to have a falling out after Madam CJ started her own company and line of beauty products, but wasn't out to destroy her. Malone ran the “Poro Company” for decades, which had multiple cosmetic items on the market, had 30 some odd beauty schools which garnered her millions as well. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, pictures of Annie Malone clearly show she was no “bright skinned”, nearly white woman. Honestly, from what I can see, Annie and Madam CJ were nearly the same complexion.
Why would a story that is so focused on highlighting the ascendance of a talented and visionary black woman like Madam CJ Walker choose to make up another black woman to be the main villain? I understand that sometimes a little dramatic license has to be taken to make a story cohesive, but this seems totally unnecessary. There was a whole world of racial bigotry and sexism that offered more than enough opposition to contend with. Why, even on the sly, build up another black woman by tearing down another?
To a degree I think I understand what happened here. Addie Munroe seems to be the embodiment of both the colorism that can, to this day, plague the black community and the insulting and demoralizing pressure black women too often face when trying to compete/live in Eurocentric society that still upholds “whiteness” as the “true” standard of beauty. All of which follow a theme of Madam CJ's own battles with confidence and self-worth. There is no question these are important and worthwhile subjects to be tackled. I just find it hard to believe that they couldn't tackle them in a more constructive and, more importantly, truthful manner.
The one, or actually two, things “Self Made” has going for it are the performances of Olivia Spencer and Blair Underwood. I may not like how the story was structured or executed, but they both give consistently nuanced performances that have depth and range. Really most of the performances are quite solid, though I think Tiffany Haddish could use a little more scene work and coaching as far as dramatic acting is concerned. And, from a visual standpoint, I think there are some great imagery and use of color and style that illustrate the vision in the mind's eye of Madam CJ.
I fully expect some of you to enjoy this series far more than I did and I can understand why. Just keep in mind that, if you do any research about this woman when it's over (and you should), you'll understand why the story says it's “Inspired By” and not “Based On” the life of CJ Walker.
Final Score: [5.5 out of 10]
Reviewed by: Tobias Elmore
Follow his facebook page for more reviews: The-Would-Be-Filmmaker
Watch Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, only on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80202462
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