Are there too many streaming services? Too much content fighting for our attention? Perhaps. But if a ton of supply means there’s more room at the table for stories like Self Made: Inspired By the Life of Madam C.J. Walker to be told on widely watched platforms like Netflix, we’re all the better for it. The story of Walker is beyond inspiring, beyond thrilling, and beyond necessary for all of us to know about. Unfortunately, the actual storytelling mechanisms of Self Made move much too bluntly and quickly to make the powerful impact I wish it had the time to instill. Self Made runs an agreeable-seeming four under-an-hour episodes — this is perhaps the only Netflix show I’ve ever watched that made me wish for more time.
Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) stars as the title role. Born Sarah Breedlove, Walker had a dream to change the world by changing black women’s hair. Through her restless spirit, revolutionary ideas, and commitments to changing the status quo no matter how tough the going got, Walker became the first self-made female millionaire. The series frames her business ventures as both contrasting with and conflating with her personal relationships. Blair Underwood (When They See Us) stars as Walker’s husband, uh, C.J. Walker, whose name Spencer’s Walker took for the brand. Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) plays Walker’s daughter (in real life, Haddish is only seven years younger than Spencer), a free spirit who both expands Walker’s brand and gets it in trouble. Carmen Ejogo (Selma) plays Addie Munroe, Walker’s relentless rival in business. Garrett Morris (Saturday Night Live) plays Walker’s delightful father-in-law. Kevin Carroll (The Leftovers) plays Walker’s lawyer and family friend Freeman Ransom, and Bill Bellamy (Insecure) plays Ransom’s cousin Sweetness.
It’s a powerful cast, each given powerful moments to shine. Watching “comedy performers play against type” is my personal catnip, and seeing Morris deliver a powerful monologue in episode three is exemplary. Plus: Haddish is proving yet again what an intrinsically watchable performer she is, while also working as a chameleon within the show’s milieu (her burgeoning queerness is one of my favorite aspects of the show). Beyond those with comedy credits, Underwood is a force of nature in his oft-volatile role, and he’s unafraid to make himself look bad — one scene where he drunkenly barges in on his wife about to close a deal is a masterclass in “drunk asshole acting.” Carroll delivers a moment of anguish in the final episode so sensitive, so tender, so raw, it shook me in a way no other moment in the series came close to.
As for Spencer, well, I have no choice but to stan. I’ve been a stan of her’s for a minute now. She gave, in my opinion, the best leading performance of 2019 in a campy horror film called Ma, and she’s, of course, been turning in peerless work before then, too (I will just take any chance to scream about Ma I can get). I find her work in general to be perfect renderings of a person caught between two places, trying effectively to retain a sense of professionalism while her personal life is subtly (or in the case of Ma, not-so-subtly) crumbling below her. Her take on Walker is fearless, powerful, a wonderful showpiece that Spencer should play a superhero, soon. And when she takes on the knotted, complicated politics of dressing down Booker T. Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith) at a business convention for his patronizing, dismissive sexism, she gives the show a beautifully tense electricity. This is not to call her performance onenote — Spencer finds the vulnerabilities and crises in confidence underneath Walker’s acumen, and I especially find her long-simmering insecurities with her rival Addie to be touchingly, empathetically performed (particularly given that relationship’s physicalization of beauty standards corresponding with “looking more white” within the black female community).
It’s a pity, then, that so often the actors have such thin, rushed, overly efficient material to work with. The show is adapted from On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a book written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. But showrunners and writers Elle Johnson, Janine Sherman Barrois, and Nicole Jefferson Asher too often lose any sense of familial intimacy or nuance in crafting the show’s course. A common storytelling piece of advice is “show, don’t tell.” Self Made tells us everything and thensome, its characters spouting unnaturally crafted summaries of theme (“You say ‘our’ company, she says ‘my’ company”) and plot (“I am a man and Dora knows it and that’s why I slept with her”) with a soapy abandonment of earned revelations. Sometimes the soapiness of it all works well for me — particularly any time Spencer gets to chew anyone out — but for the most part it feels unfair to the inherent power of the material. “You don’t just plant a seed and expect fruit the next day” goes one particularly purple line of dialogue. I wish this show was written and paced with this piece of advice in mind.
As for the “show” part of the “show, don’t tell” equation? I love the look of Self Made, its episodes helmed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) and DeMane Davis (Queen Sugar). From second one, set to the pulsing sounds of Janelle Monáe, Self Made is unafraid to inject its period story with contemporary stylishness. Much of Walker’s manufacturing processes are rendered in jittery, jump-cut, fast-motion laden montages not unlike the meth montages on Breaking Bad. Surreal vignettes do their best to highlight some of the interior drama of the characters (I, for one, will always take a metaphorical dance sequence in a television show). And its soundtrack absolutely bumps, including a choice Rapsody/Leikeli47 cut that says more thematically about Walker than most of the show’s writing. All of this plays playfully against the brilliant, period-appropriate production design, costume work, and colorful lighting to make a delightful show for the eyeballs. On occasion, the visual metaphors are as on the nose as the writing (Walker’s fight against Addie in episode 1 is shown as a literal boxing match), and on occasion, the jittery style becomes accidentally tasteless (one act of shocking violence is color-corrected to look like a 2000s Tony Scott picture, which is not great). But for the most part, Lemmons and Davis give the series a sense of much-needed vitality.
Here’s my theory on movies vs. TV: We watch movies based on their plot, and we watch TV based on their characters. Self Made, despite its incredible cast and incredible source material, feels too trapped within the “greatest hits biopic film” template, content to rush through every plot point of Walker’s life without slowing and settling to figure out who Walker is. Madam C.J. Walker is self-made — I just wish the show had spent more time on the “self” without rushing to what she made next.