Netflix UK TV review: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker
Charlotte Harrison | On 20, Mar 2020
It’s hard to believe it’s taken this long to get an adaption of the story of Madam C.J Walker – it seems tailor-made for the big or small screen. Born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1867, Walker (née Breedlove) was the first child in her large family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. She died having amassed a fortune estimated to have been about $600,000 (roughly estimated to be about $8 million in present-day dollars) after creating specialised hair products for African-American hair care. She was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire, using her wealth to support so many in her community – as well as being a major philanthropist and patron of the arts. It matches the rags-to-riches narrative arc so perfectly, it’s hard to believe it’s all true – a Cinderella story in which Cinders didn’t marry her way to the top but earned it.
It’s a shame, then, that a story this good just isn’t told well enough. Self Made spans four episodes that, combined, run for 190 minutes, starting with Walker out in the streets trying to sell hair products for the first time. She regales her audience there, and us at home, with how the hair product saved her life – when trauma in her personal life resulted in her losing her hair and her sense of self. Realising how underserved she and the women around her were in terms of hair products, she had a dream to be bigger than Rockefeller.
Over the course of the 190 minutes, we see how close she got. Charting roughly 15 years, from 1905 to 1919, we bare witness to how Walker built her empire. At least, we sort of do. The series makes huge jumps between key events and we hop continuously from success to failure then repeat. Little time is spent on showing the growth of her company; instead of a full journey, we make brief stops at important moments – of key conversations, meetings and agreements along the way. We don’t always see how Walker achieved some of her key success, or how she managed to negotiate all manner of obstacles she faced along the way. It’s all so superficial, this really doesn’t offer a deep dive in who she was.
It’s an apt description of the dialogue too, which is so lacking in subtext it feels more like a soap than a biographical drama. Favouring the approach of telling instead of showing, it’s hard not to cringe at character confessions and revelations that should feel like a surprise but have been signposted so blatantly they become anticlimactic.
That’s not to mention how tonally uneven it all is, with numerous choices that just feel odd. The soundtrack includes a range of mostly modern music, which feels intended to enhance proceedings, empowering Walker after a deal’s gone wrong or she’s been let down again, but instead just distracts with how glaringly anachronistic it is. Then there is the sporadic interjection of dream sequences, dance numbers and a recurring cutaway motif of a boxing analogy, all of which adds very little.
The story of C.J Walker has all the ingredients of a great product; they’ve just not come together here.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.