SERIES "Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker"
WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT At the beginning of the 20th Century, with the Civil War a not-so-distant memory and the Civil Rights Era a very long way away, an African-American washerwoman born Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer) saw a path to prosperity in a burgeoning market: hair-care for black women. Adopting the regal-sounding moniker Madam C.J. Walker, she fought racism and sexism — often within her own community — to launch a homespun business that eventually became an empire with a manufacturing base, more than 200 beauty schools and a door-to-door sales force. When Walker died, in 1919, she was said to be the wealthiest black woman in America.
MY SAY “Self Made,” a four-part limited series from Netflix, has a lot going for it, from its excellent cast to its behind-the-scenes pedigree (Spencer, LeBron James and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, of last year’s “Harriet,” are executive producers). The material, drawn from a biography written by Walker’s great-great granddaughter, is rich with detail. And while “Self Made” paints Walker in only the most glowing tones, writer Nicole Jefferson Asher includes plenty of sudsy subplots — rivalries, affairs, secret lives — to keep us tuned in.
The main draw, of course, is Spencer, an Oscar-winning actress who specializes in playing unstoppable forces (“The Help,” “Hidden Figures,” “The Shape of Water”). She gives a rock-solid performance as Sarah, especially in her early years as a woman bowed by poverty and low self-esteem. We can see the stars in her eyes when she befriends the light-skinned beauty Addie Munro (a fictionalized character played by Carmen Ejogo), who has a small line of hair-care products. But Addie would never let dark-skinned Sarah be a saleswoman. “Even in your Sunday best you still look like you just stepped off the planation,” she says.
Insults like that only rev up Sarah’s drive to succeed. As “Self Made” progresses, Sarah and her (mostly) supportive husband, C.J. Walker, played by a very good Blair Underwood, build their own hair-care business. Sarah blatantly rips off Addie but has more ambition and a knack for politicking. In one scene, she begs the black icon Booker T. Washington for help securing a business loan, only to be told that black women should know their place. Cannily, Sarah appeals to Washington’s wife instead and taps into a whole community of wealthy but disgruntled women.
There’s a great deal to unpack in “Self Made” — not just the pervasive racism of the early 1900s (Kevin Carroll plays Freeman Ransom, a Columbia-educated lawyer Sarah finds working as a train-station redcap) but the complicated relationship between black women, their hair and white ideals of beauty. There’s also a subplot involving Sarah’s daughter, A'Lelia Walker (Tiffany Haddish), here portrayed as gay. Much of this is only glancingly addressed, though; you'll have to provide your own analysis.
The downside to this series: directors Lemmons and DeMane Davis, who lack subtlety and a cohesive sense of style. “Self Made” is full of visual clutter (fantasy sequences with dancers) and distractingly literal metaphors (rivals Sarah and Addie actually step into a modern-day boxing ring). The soundtrack is jarringly anachronistic: Triumphant speeches are followed by sassy ‘70s funk; romantic scenes are accompanied by ‘90s-style slow jams. It’s as if the filmmakers worry we’ll get bored by too much plain old history.
Still, Spencer’s Sarah carries the day, impressing us with her determination, drive and savvy. “Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities,” she tells a wavering customer, a marketing pitch that hasn’t changed much for women of all colors.
BOTTOM LINE A compelling if clunky drama about an important figure.