Netflix’s new limited series deftly looks at racism, colorism, sexism, and more, all with typically great work from Octavia Spencer.
Hair is a fundamental part of the black community, it’s how we see ourselves and want others to see us. It’s how we communicate and tell our history. The story of black hair is tied directly into black history, especially for black women; while natural hair is more openly encouraged today, black women have long been pressured to straighten and manipulate their natural curls. In this respect, Madam C.J. Walker is more than one of America’s earliest black entrepreneurs. She’s a vital figure in the world of black cosmetics, which Netflix’s miniseries Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker brings to stirring life.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker isn’t just about empowerment, but also the importance of black women’s natural beauty. Walker’s story of being the world’s first self-made female millionaire not only focuses on her own personal struggles, but delves into a bevy of relevant issues for black women: colorism, racism, sexism, classism, and more.
Executive-produced by and starring Octavia Spencer in the title role, Self Made explores the life of the woman born as Sarah Breedlove. After escaping an abusive brother-in-law and working as a laundress, Walker started losing her hair — at least partially due to the harsh products in soap, including lye, that react badly to natural black hair. Thankfully, she comes across Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo), a hairdresser who arranges to do Walker’s hair in return for washed clothes. When Walker realizes that Addie’s formula is the key to growing black women’s hair back, she offers to sell her product for her.
Addie liked the idea of selling her products to other women of color. The issue, though, is that she doesn’t want Walker selling the product because of how dark-skinned she is. As such, Walker takes it upon herself to come up with her own formula to help black women grow hair in spite of a variety of scalp issues. The two become rivals. Addie goes as far as to move to Indianapolis where Walker is in the process of setting up her own salon, and the competition between the two grows.
Throughout the four-episode arc, Walker approaches her business not only as a way to get hair products to black women but also as a way to financially empower them. She employed more than 20,000 agents—or hair culturists, as she called them—across the country.
At the center of all of this is Spencer herself, whose portrayal of Walker’s initial lack of self-confidence and eventual entrepreneurial spirit feels suitably aspirational. She’s believable as a character with the gift to share her story with other black women; she makes her story the story of all her customers, which makes it easy to gravitate towards her as an icon of Black excellence.
The supporting cast helps as well, including Tiffany Haddish in a rare dramatic role as Walker’s daughter, Lelia. Their relationship (and the generational shifts within it) is one of the series’ best elements — Lelia supports her mother’s work, but wants to live her best life — which isn’t easy, considering the fact she’s a black queer woman in the early 20th century. Haddish is admirably restrained here, leaning into the free-spiritedness of the character while leaving herself grounded.
Similar praise goes to the rest of the cast. As Addie, Ejogo provides a deceiving charm that hides a devious nature towards Walker. She is the complete opposite of Walker and reminds how some consider hair as a measure of self-worth and how such views play into colorism. As Walker’s husband Charles, Blair Underwood offers an adorable level of support and uncertainty, conflicted between his sincere love for his wife and jealousy for the success of her business. (At least Kevin Carroll is much more dependable as Walker’s friend and lawyer, Ransom.)
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker isn’t just about empowerment, but also the importance of black women’s natural beauty.
But one of Self Made’s biggest pluses is how authentic it feels coming from an all-Black women-led team. Directors Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) and DeMane Davis lean gleefully into the historical setting, with bright, vivid cinematography that showcases the period costumes and incredible hair on display. Appropriately, it also reaches beyond simply retelling the events of her life: it tracks black history and civil rights issues during the turn of the century, primarily racial violence against African-Americans and their communities.
Self Made showcases the perseverance of Walker’s values: making black women feel beautiful and giving them a vocation that grants them status and independence. It’s important to see the progress of how a black woman ran a successful business and the effect it has had for many women of color. Ultimately, it gives us the story of a black woman who succeeded all odds stacked against her – and it’s great to see Netflix telling a story about black history that goes beyond slave narratives.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker hits Netflix this Friday, March 20.