Self Made: The Life of Madam C.J. Walker – Netflix Season 1 Review

 

Season 1

Episode Guide

The Fight of the Century
Bootstraps
The Walker Girl
A Credit to the Race

 

On paper, Self Made should be a smash success. It’s topical, racially charged story follows the life of American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. This African American built a haircare empire from the ground up, becoming a self-made millionaire and an inspiration to many during her career. Of course, with any sort of success comes tragedy and split across four episodes, Netflix’s latest biopic attempts to shed light on some of that across its run-time. Unfortunately the style often clashes with the substance, becoming anachronistically distracting in what’s otherwise a really good story.

The plot itself revolves around Sarah Breedlove, a woman working for next to nothing who decides to try and go it alone and create her own haircare products. Tired of living in the shadow of her former employee Addie, what follows is a rags-to-riches story as Sarah changes her name to Madam C.J. Walker and starts to build her empire from the ground up. Of course, along the way there are numerous personal problems that threaten to throw her off course but eventually this sees her rise to the top of her game with her daughter by her side.

It’s certainly an inspiring story but like so many other stories of its kind, the drama comes from the emotional resonance with the characters. Octavia Spencer does a good job with her role but it’s ultimately Tiffany Haddish who plays her daughter Lelia that really stands out. Together they work well across the four episodes to capture the heart of this story, despite the anachronistic language that runs rampant throughout.

Ultimately it’s this style that will make or break your experience with this. Much like Apple TV+’s Dickinson last year, the series has a tendency to throw in numerous song choices and surrealistic imagery that waters down the message. Whether it be a group of men throwing down their canes and allowing a purple glow to emanate from the ground or a literal depiction of a boxing ring to show the fight Madam C.J. Walker has to endure, the series throws these scenes in time and time again when perhaps a more straight forward period piece would have been better suited.

When it comes to the music and audio design of the series, this is ultimately where Self Made comes undone. Given this is the era of Ragtime, it’s good to see some inclusion of this in the score but the addition of modern hip-hop records or Seven Nation Army feel completely ill-fitting for this time period and completely take you out of the experience. It’s such a shame too because the series has potential but if you were turned off from Dickinson, chances are you will be with this one too.

That’s not to say the series is poor, and there will undoubtedly be a crowd for this that enjoys the rags to riches story but personally this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Would Roots be as powerful a series if they threw in a couple of Nicki Minaj tracks? Would Pursuit Of Happyness work better if they threw in Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills into the score? If your answer to that is yes, then this is without doubt the series for you. If you answered no however, you have to ask yourself – would Self Made be more powerful and inspiration if it played out as a conventional period piece?

 


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