The Stream: Unnecessary directorial flourishes and non-historical subplots distract from the central story.
The Big Screen: Octavia Spencer and Carmen Ejogo go head-to-head and both come out on top.
The Final Bill: A quick binge that’s entertaining and informative enough to hold interest for four parts.-Trip Fontaine
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish, Carmen Ejogo | See full cast & crew
4 Part Mini-Series (191 minutes total)
Genre: Drama, Historical
In this time of self-quarantines, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place orders, Stream To Big Screen suggests spending some alone time with streaming content since your big screens have gone dark. Luckily, the options are plentiful for streaming content. There are many providers, which I will not list; and a myriad of genres, you get the gist. Scroll and search. We give you our thoughts on some of that content which we’ve come across.
Last Friday, streaming behemoth, Netflix, premiered a miniseries about the American cosmetics and hair care mogul known as Madam C.J. Walker, called Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. The miniseries stars and was produced by Academy Award winner, Octavia Spencer, with an assist for Lebron James; and the first two episodes were directed by Kasi Lemmons, who recently directed Harriet. It’s probably no coincidence that Self Made was dropped in the midst of Women’s History Month. Madam C.J. Walker’s claim to fame is that she is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America not to mention that she is African American and made products that catered to the aesthetic needs of black women. Self Made attempts to depict the struggle and tenacity of Sarah Breedlove, who becomes Madam C.J. Walker, as she develops her business out of her own necessity and strives for greater and greater heights.
Self Made is easily digestible streaming content. It is a miniseries in the best sense. It’s a generally contained and focused story. It is 4 episodes that do not try to cram the cradle-to-grave story of Madam C.J. Walker into hour long bits. The basic plotline it presents is not overly complicated. The viewer wants to see how this American success story came to be. For the most part, Self Made is successful.
On the other hand, please pay attention to the words after the colon in the title: “Inspired by.” Please do not let your children use this miniseries as a basis for their history report about Madam C.J. Walker. The miniseries distills the essence of the woman, but it seems to use its dramatic license quite liberally. There are also some directorial flourishes, particularly in the first 2 episodes, that do not fit neatly in your run-of-the-mill television biopic. A storyline or two also feels too contemporary to be grounded in any fact, and therefore, those parts feel forced in for a modern audience. While they add color to the overall series, those parts devalue the remarkable nature of this African American female entrepreneur’s feat as she amassed her fortune and grew her empire in the 1910’s.
Besides getting some sense of the history here, watching Self Made will make you appreciate the national treasure that is Octavia Spencer. The role of Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker is a great one, filled with pain and self-doubt that morphs into graceful diligence and steely determination. Octavia Spencer portrays the character with the intelligence that a woman like Walker would have in spades. You’ll also get to say, “You go girl!”, as she continues to push for more success. This is one of Spencer’s best roles to date.
Spencer has two strong foils in Carmen Ejogo, who plays Madam Walker’s nemesis and chief competitor in business; and, there is the namesake husband played by Blair Underwood. Both Ejogo and Underwood complement Spencer’s portrayal well. Although some situations that their characters get into feel a bit contrived and can border on caricatures, each actor manages to sidestep most clichés. You might even be able to feel Ejogo reaching up to twist her villainess’s proverbial moustache every now and then – her raised eyebrows show just enough of the deviousness behind her beautiful face.
The less said about Tiffany Haddish in this miniseries the better.
Ultimately, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is a worthwhile viewing experience. For a historical piece, it is a breezy effort. Since it is only 4 episodes with each less than an hour runtime, you could binge this in less time than an Avengers movie. And, Madam C.J. Walker is like an Avenger herself, taking on the unenviable task of creating a hair care empire. Although the history within the series is questionable, it is not boring and Octavia Spencer, Carmen Ejogo and Blair Underwood bring their bests to the screen. Let Self Made pique your interest about Madam C.J. Walker and then do some actual research on your own.