Up until recently, most of the people deemed worthy of drawn-out biographical explorations have been white, but it's a new day in Hollywood. In theaters, films like Hidden Figures (2016) and Harriet (2019) brought stories about lesser-known African American heroes from out of the shadows, and with Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, Netflix does the holy work of making the self-made millionaire the TV star she should have been long before now.
Starring Octavia Spencer as the titular mogul who built an empire through hair care products, Madam C.J. Walker starts Walker's story through a somewhat surprising slant: her professional rivalry with mentor Addie Munroe (a fictionalized character based on Annie Malone) played by a sinister, snarling Carmen Ejogo. Based on the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker from Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, Netflix's series admirably recreates how Walker used will and self-reliance to go from a laundress to a businesswoman, just a few decades after slavery ended. Viewers see how Walker persevered through a dreadful marriage with marketing sleaze ball C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood), how she dealt with colorism, and how she bucked against entrenched sexism of the era to thrive managing all the details of business — product design, manufacturing, hiring and training a workforce, and so on.
It's a thrill to see Walker rub shoulders with historical figures including W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and John Rockefeller; it's rewarding to see her navigate political debates of the time, including, for example, Washington's assertion that Walker's empowerment of women through cosmetology would make black women too vain to advance African American causes or, worse to him, eclipse men. Important, overlooked pearls about American history, and black feminist history, come alive in Madam C.J. Walker's four episodes, and even viewers who, like myself, thought they knew Walker's story might be stunned to uncover truths about about her sometimes scandalous life. As a piece of scholastic infotainment, the series has tons of merit. But as a piece of prestige television, it falls short.
Madam C.J. Walker makes many puzzling choices. As it begins, Walker — born Sarah Breedlove — is inexplicably shown prepping for a fight in a boxing ring, squaring off against an unknown enemy. This makes sense retroactively, once we learn that Walker and Munroe became bitter foes, but even then, Walker's link to boxing remains confounding (would dueling hot combs have made more sense?) and the device returns so sparingly it reinforces the baffling decision to use it in the first place. Other quirky flourishes — dance numbers, hazy dream sequences, glowing people — also appear as add-ons, as if its storytellers couldn't commit to how best to tell this sprawling story. Dialogue has a soapy feel to it, where everyone says exactly what they're feeling and thinking with no subtext. But Madam C.J. Walker's unique charms mean overlooking flat lines, like when Mr. Walker admits to an affair. ("You forgot what a wife is supposed to do. I am a man, and Dora knows it. And that's why I slept with her.")
More curiosities abound. There's almost no depiction of an actual hair salon, or visual proof of the products' power. Yes, the hair-salon-as-safe-space-for-black-women idea has been worked over plenty, but this is one instance where seeing black women in a hair salon would have served practical purpose. (And made way more sense than a boxing ring.) Actors don't even bother trying to sound like people of a different era. Then there's the story of Lelia, Walker's daughter (played by Tiffany Haddish), who's discovering her queerness; not only is her story alluring enough to make you pause the show to learn more about her (do it), her "secret" same-sex attraction gets drawn out so laboriously that it drains momentum. Lastly, as Madam C.J. Walker experts might've already known, she makes a bombshell admission in the last episode that challenges our empathy for her, in effect flipping the antagonist-protagonist structure on its head and rendering a whole lot of the story moot. We leave feeling a little bit betrayed and a lot bit confused, wondering if we've been rooting for the wrong person the whole time. Crafting a biographical story where the hero isn't quite a hero could work, and it has (see Last King of Scotland or Narcos, for example). But this one does not.
Despite its flaws, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker serves an important function: to educate people about a black female entrepreneur where school books, school systems and, up until now, pop culture have failed. Thank goodness for streaming, with its canyons of content to fill, for opening a gateway to an alternative learning universe where pioneering people of color get the dramatic treatments previously denied, and kudos to Netflix for taking this swing. Madam C.J. Walker is a great educational, informative tool, but its execution isn't as inspired as the title suggests.
TV Guide Rating: 2/5
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker arrives on Netflix Friday, March 20.