Make Way for Madam C.J. Walker

 

Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker
Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, courtesy of Elle

Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker addresses the need and desire for more historical dramas featuring black characters.

When it comes to the number of historical television shows and films that cast a light on the stories and accomplishments of black figures, there are few and far between. That number becomes even smaller when looking for something to watch that does not directly relate to slavery, and smaller still when searching for a female-led narrative.

However, Netflix’s upcoming four-part limited series starring Octavia Spencer as the iconic Madam C.J. Walker, set to debut on March 20, checks all three boxes and gives fans of both period pieces and black stories an instant thumbs-up.

Spencer w/ Dance Extras
Spencer Among Dance Extras, courtesy of Essence

The series first introduces us to its main character, not as the entrepreneurial and hair-care genius we know her to be, but rather as a woman who is trying to make something of herself while providing for her family at the same time. After getting out of an abusive relationship, Walker works hard to not only reclaiming herself as a person but also the hair she was losing as a result of the gritting work as a laundress.

Throughout the four parts of the series, the audience is given a deep understanding of Walker’s life from her start in the beauty industry up to when she has reached the peak of her business success. Her perseverance in the face of various hurdles that appear in the forms in both her work and home life makes her a compelling and multi-faceted protagonist for a limited series. Walker’s relationship with her family, her rivalries, business risks and personal desires are just a few of the featured parts of the story that will draw viewers in. At crucial parts in the show, they will find themselves feeling understanding and respect when witnessing moments that define Walker as a business maverick and as a woman.

Underwood, Spencer, & Kevin Carroll
Underwood, Spencer, & Kevin Carroll, courtesy of Deadline

Though the pacing of the series can feel fast at times, with some events and timeframes feeling as though they just speed right on by, the story itself holds steady and keeps one watching the whole way through. Combined with first-rate performances from the cast, most notably those of Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood, and a narrative that looks into the lives and actions of almost all its characters, Self Made makes for a worthy weekend binge for all.

Spencer and Underwood command the series with their performances, there’s no doubt about that, with their relationship as Mr. and Madam C.J. Walker serving as one of the main driving forces that makes the series worth watching. The supporting cast is nothing to sniff at either, as the characters of Ransom (Kevin Carroll) and Addie (Carmen Ejogo) make us wish that there were additional bonus episodes dedicated to these two alone. Tiffany Haddish appears as Walker’s daughter, Lelia, outside of her usual role in comedies. While she gives neither an excellent or poor performance throughout the series, we found ourselves wishing that producers and casters had used this as an opportunity to bring a lesser-known actress with more experience in the genre who would have benefited more from the role of such an important character.

Spencer and Ejogo
Spencer and Ejogo, courtesy of IMDB

It is not the cast, or the narrative structure, or even the wardrobe and set that make this historical series, unlike anything you might’ve seen before, however. Rather, the way that this Netflix creation weaves together more modern and almost magical elements to create a story that truly speaks for itself. While we don’t want to spoil anything for those reading, prepare to witness scenes that will look like something out of a Broadway headliner.

Regardless of any opinion on the actors’ performances or even down to the tiniest detail of a costume stitching, one crucial argument is made from the introduction of this limited series into, and that is how important it is to tell the stories of prominent and sometimes unobserved figures in black history. With Black History Month having just passed and the HBO series Watchmen demonstrating the need to shine a light on often forgot about events and people from Black history, especially with Black history seldom being taught in education systems and within film and television, where Black viewers seldom find themselves positively and meaningfully represented across all genres. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker truly makes a name for itself and hopefully will begin a positive trend of more television series and films of Black figures being made.

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