In the 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker became one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire after launching a line of hair care products specialized for the African American community. Walker was inspired by her desire to elevate her own confidence and position in society by embracing long, beautifully styled hair.
At the time, hair care proved to be a difficult task for African American women, many of whom lived in poverty and had very minimal access to hair products designed specifically for them. Now, more than a century later, Walker’s story is told in the Netflix limited series “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J. Walker.”
“Self-Made,” based off of A’Lelia Bundles’s New York Times Notable novel, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame C.J. Walker, which explores the history and success of her great-great-grandmother, is a stunning period drama which shows the ambition of Walker and the resilience of an African American female entrepreneur living in a white man’s world.
The unique filmography style of DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons lightens an otherwise serious plot. Classic shots featuring tense and dramatic scenes are often interjected with more creative shots, like that of Walker and her competitor in a boxing ring as well as whimsical musical numbers.
Octavia Spencer [“The Help,” “Hidden Figures”] offers an extremely compelling performance in the four-episode series. Walker’s rags-to-riches story is one not known by many, yet Spencer is undeniably convincing in bringing it to life onscreen. The series allows viewers to follow along with the growth of Walker’s business, first starting out in her kitchen in St. Louis, Missouri, then to her expansion in Indianapolis, Indiana, all the way up until her daughter’s successful franchise in Harlem, New York.
The series’ most memorable moment is undoubtedly the turning point that allows Walker to access the funds needed to open a factory and salon. After being rejected from a handful of investors, Walker sees no other option than to take out a mortgage on her home, much to her husband’s dismay. Fortunately, another option presents itself when the women of the National Association of Colored Women [NACW] show up on Walker’s doorstep with a box of checks intended to aid in the opening of Walker’s factory. Upon bestowing the box to Walker, the president of the NACW, Margaret Washington [Kimberly Huie], simply says, “Female enterprise is good for us all.”
This is just one scene of many which illustrates the common theme of female empowerment, a topic that was not prevalent during this time. Between the engaging plot, creative directing and compelling acting, one thing is for certain: “Self-Made” brilliantly showcases the life, success and legacy of Madame C.J. Walker.