NEW YORK (CNS) — The magnificent Octavia Spencer can’t rescue “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” Lackluster and out of sync, the four-episode miniseries is streaming now on Netflix.
Largely inspired by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles’ 2001 biography “On Her Own Ground,” the program charts the titular businesswoman’s rise, as a thriving marketer of hair products and cosmetics in the early decades of the last century, to become, by most accounts, the country’s first self-made woman millionaire.
With its depictions of lynching and considerable other violence, some sexuality, adultery, lesbianism and salty language, the show is suitable for adult viewers only.
Sarah Breedlove (Spencer), as Walker was originally known, narrates her own story. “Hair,” she says, as the series opens, “tells us who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.” In brief flashbacks, viewers discover how Sarah’s personal history led to her career.
As a washerwoman in her 30s, Sarah, who describes herself as “born to struggle,” was contending with the physical and emotional abuse dispensed by her ex-offender second husband, John Davis (Robert Ifedi). He tells her, at one point, that she resembles “a mangy dog.”
After Davis leaves her, Sarah meets hairdresser Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo), who agrees to help Sarah remedy her scalp problems in exchange for having her laundry done. Becoming a believer in the restorative capacity of the product Addie has developed, Sarah wants the chance to sell it.
Things get off to a bad start, however, when Sarah purloins some tins of the stuff to hawk. Despite her success in doing so, Addie understandably resents Sarah’s underhandedness and rejects her plea to become a salesperson. “Even in your Sunday best,” the proprietor says dismissively “you look like you just stepped off the plantation.”
Sarah, though, is undeterred, convinced that, “with 3 million Negro women” in the country, if she could sell each a jar of the hair grower, she could build a successful business. The entrepreneur appeals to African American women’s collective pride: “If she looks good, we all look good. If she looks respectable, we all look respectable,” she says.
With her new husband, C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood), Sarah moves to Indianapolis to build her business and adopts her professional name. As her enterprise prospers, she curries the favor of prominent African Americans — and rivals — Booker T. Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith) and W.E.B. Dubois (Cornelius Smith Jr.), as well as that of affluent white investors.
She also develops a fierce rivalry with Addie, whom the series portrays as following her to Indianapolis. Other challenges include the philandering of her spouse, who takes up with one of her saleswomen, Dora Larrie (Sydney Morton), and the onset of kidney disease.
Where business is concerned, by contrast, she enjoys continuous success, becoming wealthy enough to build an estate at Irvington, New York, on the banks of the Hudson. There her next-door neighbor is the nation’s wealthiest man, John D. Rockefeller (Frank Moore).
As its subtitle implies, “Self Made” doesn’t conform strictly to what actually happened in its subject’s life. Instead, times, places and events are altered or rearranged for dramatic effect. Historians, consequently, might find frequent cause to quarrel with the series.
The most prominent example of the artistic liberties the show takes is its characterization of the relationship between Madam C.J. and Addie, the latter a stand-in for Walker’s real-life mentor-turned-competitor, Annie Malone. On screen, this is presented as a catfight with undertones of intra-racial prejudice on the part of light-skinned Addie.
Over the course of three episodes, the enmity between the two becomes exhausting for the audience. And it registers as a case of too little, too late when Madam C.J. says to Addie in the final installment: “White folks are out here killing us. We’ve got to stop fighting over things that don’t matter.”
Always authentic and convincing, Spencer also displays her ability to speak volumes with a glance. Despite her best efforts, however, “Self Made” disappoints.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.