“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” examines a fascinating historical figure, but in a soapy and slightly uneven way. Octavia Spencer plays the title character, whose creation of an African-American haircare company turned her into America’s first female millionaire. But too much of this four-part miniseries focuses on what amounts to a cat fight with her chief rival.
Beyond her rags-to-riches tale, the remarkable thing about C.J. Walker is the likelihood that people have never heard of her. That’s a situation her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, sought to remedy with the book “On Her Own Ground.”
That becomes the inspiration for the miniseries, which charts Walker’s unshakeable determination in establishing her business and empowering black women despite the racial and gender barriers she faced, as well as betrayal and disappointment related to those close to her.
Unfortunately, the miniseries spends a little too much of its time on Walker’s feud with Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), a relationship characterized by backstabbing, competition and occasional theft of product ideas. Whatever its accuracy, those interludes prove less interesting – and more florid – than the larger structural and societal hurdles that Walker overcame.
Set during the early 20th century, directors Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis have certainly mounted a handsome production, one that explores aspects of the time beyond just business and race – including Walker’s disapproval when her daughter (Tiffany Haddish) begins a romantic relationship with a woman. The story also deals with the resentment Walker’s success fostered from her husband (Blair Underwood), who didn’t relish living in his wife’s shadow.
The Oscar-winning Spencer (also a producer on the project, along with, among others, basketball star LeBron James) sinks her teeth into this meaty role, portraying Walker as a woman with boundless drive and grit – despite the skepticism of investors and peers – whose triumphs were balanced by plenty of setbacks and trials. The narrative is punctuated by other real-life figures that pass through her orbit, including Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and business titan John D. Rockefeller, whose massive estate wasn’t far from her own.
Still, “Self Made” is ultimately a solid but unspectacular effort, more interesting finally for its subject matter than its execution.
Walker’s life is, clearly, a story worth telling, and as basically a longish movie split into four chapters, it’s a reasonably concise package. It just could have been made in a way that would have more fully branded this inspirational biography as a miniseries worth watching.
“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” premieres March 20 on Netflix.