Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Miss C.J.Walker (available on Netflix) documents the real life story of an African American self-made millionaire (one of the first) and her invention of hair care products for hair loss and curls, predominately for African women. She was not only known for being one of the first African American female millionaires but was also known for her Philanthropic endeavours, especially her donation towards the making of the Indianapolis YMCA.
If you couldn’t tell this was one amazing woman! However, her past was not without hardship; she was born on a cotton plantation in 1867, with her parents being recently freed from slavery. One of five children, she was the first to be born into a life of freedom.
The programme sees Sarah (Miss C.J.Walker), played by the wonderful Octavia Spencer, grow into a business woman. It details the hardships, competition, sexism, racism and jealousy that she faces to get to the top. Not only this, the programme accurately details that money does not eradicate any of these problems, in fact, in many cases it makes them a lot worse.
As a female it was refreshing and interesting to see the hardships she faced to build a business and how she did not let any of her setbacks get in the way of her success. More importantly, it is great to see an African American business women represented, especially in such a large institution like Netflix. I must admit I did not know about her story before watching the show. That in itself perfectly describes how important the show is.
Family plays an integral role to the life of Madam C.J Walker, with her husband Charles Joseph Walker, or C.J (played by Blair Underwood), having an illustrious affair with one of Sarah’s employees. On the other hand there is her daughter A’Lelia (played by Tiffany Haddish) who is secretly a lesbian and finds her true self in Harlem, New York. It is hard to say whether the lesbian affair or the ‘wounded pride’ of her husband is purely there for dramatic affect. A’Lelia did host extravagant queer parties in her lifetime but it is never once spoken about that she was queer. In fact her descendant who wrote the biography that the show is based on is planning writing one on A’Lelia, so perhaps we will find out more about her extravagant yet hazy past.
It must be said that I was rather surprised when doing research after watching the show that there wasn’t more emphasis on Sarah’s philanthropic endeavours, for example her involvement with the anti-lynching movement. Conversely, like Mike Hale said in his review, it was a shame there wasn’t more emphasis on the earlier experiences she had at trying to build the business from the ground up. For example, she was married three times and started experiencing hair loss because of the extreme labour and stress she faced. I think it is here that we would have seen a more raw and endearing performance from Octavia Spencer.
It appears that they missed out two really important parts of her life, parts which could have made the show a lot more impactful and true to her life story. I understand that focusing in on one particular element will dilute what can be mentioned, its just a shame that such large parts were skimmed over.
It is not to say that it is not important to watch the story of such an inspiring woman. I just wish that the important issues of racism and sexism were dealt with in more depth and that such a woman was highlighted as not just a businesswoman with a problematic husband, a lesbian daughter and a conniving, jealous competitor. She had a rich history and a rich future who dealt with issues far beyond her business.
Unfortunately the show appeared more like something that suited the stage rather than the screen. At points I was actually surprised it didn’t break out into song – something quite disappointing when I believe the story deserves more than the apprehension of whether music is going to fill my ears.
Please watch the show and form your own opinion. However, at the very least, research the strong woman behind such a company and what she did for African Americans, particularly women.