TV Review – Self Made: Inspired By the Life of Madam C.J. Walker
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This four-part miniseries is an adaptation of On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles. Bundles’ book is a biography of Madam C.J. Walker who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female self-made millionaire, meaning that she didn’t inherit the wealth. She earned it through business dealings. Walker made her fortune through hair care and cosmetic products targeted at black women. The series begins in 1908 before Walker created her company and follows her for the last decade of her life, which saw her grow the company and her profile to one for the record books. The series was mostly written by Nicole Jefferson Asher (Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart and Love Beats Rhymes) with assistance from Elle Johnson (Bosch and The Glades) and Janine Sherman Barrois (Claws and ER). All of whom are black women writers. The series was mostly directed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet and Eve’s Bayou) with assistance from DeMane Davis (How To Get Away With Murder and Queen Sugar). Both are black women directors.
It’s important to point out that the talent behind the camera are predominantly black women because this series is telling the story of an inspiring and aspiring, black woman and the series wants to speak directly to black women in an effort to address the issues that black women have faced and still face, as well as the issues that black people in general have faced. This series exists to show that despite all the adversities that she had to handle, this black woman did so over a hundred years ago and she succeeded. This means that many more, if not all black women can succeed, if they embody the same spirit and determination.
Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water and The Help) stars as Sarah Breedlove, the black woman who would come to be known as Madam C.J. Walker. She was born in 1867, but we meet her in 1908 at the age of 40. She had just married C.J. Walker who was her third husband. When she married him, she already had a 20-year-old daughter from her first husband who widowed her. She’s from the south but she lives in her husband’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. She worked as a washer-woman, basically as a maid, cleaning homes and doing laundry, but she finds that she’s losing hair and going bald.
One of the people for whom she’s a washer-woman is a biracial, business-woman named Addie Munroe, played by Carmen Ejogo (It Comes at Night and Selma). Addie has developed a type of hair grease that cures hair-loss and baldness. When Sarah starts using it, she falls in love with it. She then gains the confidence to want to become a sales-woman, specifically selling Addie’s hair-grease or hair-grower. However, Addie doesn’t believe that Sarah would be a good sales-woman. Even when Sarah secretly does so and is able to make a lot of money, still Addie doesn’t want her being a sales-woman.
This begins the central rivalry and conflict that will continue throughout the whole series. It also begins what is a top criticism from the black community about this series. Olive Pometsey, a writer for GQ magazine, published an article that exemplifies that criticism. In the article, Pometsey argues this rivalry between Sarah and Addie is historically inaccurate. The rivalry also underscores the issue of colorism. Colorism is when minorities, either black people or brown-skin people, express racism toward other black or brown people. Specifically, it’s when people of color who have light-colored skin, usually due to being biracial or mixed-race, express racism toward people who have dark-colored skin. This is exactly the case between Sarah and Addie. Addie is light-skin and expresses racism toward Sarah who is dark-skin.
Colorism is a legitimate issue for any piece of media to tackle. The reason that people are criticizing it here is because they argue that it’s not historically accurate. Addie Munroe is based on a real-life person named Annie Turnbo Malone. Yet, people argue that the rivalry between Walker and Malone had nothing to do with colorism. The true rivalry is addressed later in this series, but, initially it’s all about colorism. Pometsey argues as others probably would that underlining this colorism rivalry diminishes the legacy of both Walker and Malone. Pometsey doesn’t like the depiction of Booker T. Washington, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, either. This series depicts him as a misogynist.
All of those are legitimate criticisms and concerns. However, for me, having studied films through writing about them for over a decade, it’s clear that narrative films or TV shows about real-life people are never historically accurate all of the time. There will be artistic license taken and changes for dramatic purposes. If the artistic license or dramatic purpose doesn’t work on you and you’re a person who was already aware of the real-life person’s story, then that’s valid. Knowing Walker’s history, the rivalry between Sarah and Addie still doesn’t bother me because dramatically I think it delves into colorism and related issues of self-worth very well. Some can argue that there are other issues that the series could have focused itself and they would be correct, but the makers of this series choose colorism and I understand why they did, given the subject matter, which is about black beauty, and characters, whom hair and skin are a concern.
If there’s any criticism with which I would agree, it’s the pacing of the series. The presentation overall is also a bit pedestrian. The costumes and set designs were on point, but I can’t say I was all that impressed with the camerawork. No shots or scenes in particular jumped out at me. There were certain incidents that jumped out, but nothing visually that I can emphasize. This might be in part due to the pacing, which for certain characters felt really rushed, mostly in the supporting cast. I would say that feels especially so for Lelia, the daughter of Sarah, played by Tiffany Haddish (The Last O.G. and The Carmichael Show). Enough time just isn’t devoted to Lelia’s life to get a firm grip on her as a person. At first, she seems directionless. She gets married. It’s not sure why or how. She moves with her mother to Indianapolis, following her lackadaisical husband’s dream. She then realizes she’s a lesbian and basically adopts a grown girl, and it all whips by so fast as not to get a handle or deep emotion to any of it.
Blair Underwood (Quantico and L.A. Law) co-stars as Charles James Walker, aka C.J. Walker, the third and final husband of Sarah. I don’t think the pacing affected his character. The series devotes enough to him to make us totally understand what he’s feeling and experiencing. If one has seen Netflix’s The Crown, Charles is going through the same issue as Prince Philip in that series. Both men are living in the shadow of either a more famous or more successful woman in a time period where sexism was way more prevalent and a man could feel emasculated by such an imposition. Underwood is great as this frustrated, but ultimately still very sexy man, who tries to take power back.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 4 eps.
Available on Netflix.