Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker
- Katherine McLaughlin
- 20 March 2020
Luxurious spin on this rags-to-riches tale of a successful black businesswoman
Hair Love won Best Animated Short Film at the Oscars this year for its story of an African-American father learning to style his daughter's afro hair for the first time. In 2009, Good Hair, narrated by and starring Chris Rock, explored issues of desirability and acceptability in how African-American women perceive their hair and style it. In recent years, British short films, such as Corrina's Hair and Mahalia Melts in the Rain, have commented on race and personal confidence by examining the hair-straightening process.
Self Made, the four-part mini-series inspired by the first female self-made millionaire in America, covers all these issues and makes its point clearly with an impassioned introduction. Via narration over gorgeous sepia portraits of multiple hairstyles, Madam CJ Walker (Octavia Spencer), explains the historical reasons behind her business of making hair-care products for black women. Written by Nicole Jefferson Asher and based on A'Lelia Bundles' books and research on the successful entrepreneur, the drama plays out over a period of ten years, from 1908 to 1918.
Spencer is, as ever, wonderful in the titular role, switching her demeanour gracefully between determined and delicate, as the show shades in her professional and personal life. She is joined by a stellar cast including Blair Underwood as Walker's husband, Charles, and Carmen Ejogo as business rival Addie Munroe. Tiffany Haddish is quite simply the cat's meow as Walker's daughter and Harlem wild child A'Lelia.
There seems to be a conscious decision by the creatives to drive the narrative away from depicting brutality. The impact of domestic and racist violence is discussed, rather than explicitly shown, with the episodes focusing on the progressive steps Walker took to make her company work and fight discrimination. Multiple close-ups luxuriate in black women's natural hair and act as a celebration of it. Themes of colourism and beauty standards are handled with care and attention, and the interior life of Walker is shown through powerful visuals and beautifully choreographed musical numbers.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, this biopic, sets itself apart with feelgood fantasy sequences that add pizzazz to the familiar rags-to-riches formula. The team of black women behind the limited series knows what's up when it comes to the typical 'inspirational prestige drama' and makes refreshing adjustments.
Episodes watched 4 of 4
Self Made is available on Netflix, Friday 20 March.