Arts·Black Light

3 reasons why Netflix's latest miniseries Self Made should be at the top of your weekend watch list

Starring Octavia Spencer, it's the story of America's first Black millionaire.

Starring Octavia Spencer, it's the story of America's first Black millionaire

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker lands on Netflix March 20. (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

These are strange and scary times. Amidst all the uncertainty, there are few things we can rely on with each breaking news cycle. But one thing that has remained consistent? Netflix and its steady supply of content. 

Today, the streaming service releases a four-part miniseries based on the life of a self-made millionaire. Don't worry, I'm not talking about Kylie Jenner. Madam C.J. Walker is a name often heard during Black History Month, but her story has usually been relegated to a single (often inaccurate) paragraph in a history textbook. Now, the hair-care entrepreneur's story is finally receiving the Hollywood treatment with the ambitious, lush and sometimes fantastical mini-series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker was born to enslaved parents and grew up in severe poverty. At the turn of the century — during a time of Jim Crow segregation, lynching and extreme racial segregation — Walker went from working as a washerwoman and cook for $1.50 a day to building a million-dollar hair-care empire that trained tens of thousands of Black women to sell her products.

Self Made is based on the seminal book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles. Bundles was named after her great-grandmother A'Lelia Walker, a glittering businesswoman and patron of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance and the only surviving daughter of Madam C.J. Walker. She's a television news executive and producer who has spent much of her life researching and documenting the stories of her luminous family. We spoke on the phone last week about the new series and what it has been like to finally see these stories come to life. 

After our conversation, I came up with three reasons why you should add this mini-series to your list of things to watch. It might be just the inspiration we all need as we try to survive the new normal of quarantine life.

Scene from Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix)

It's a period film about Black ambition. (That doesn't happen very often.)

Self Made is a cinematic anomaly: a period piece about Black folks having ambitions beyond survival — and they achieve their extraordinary goals.

Now don't get me wrong, struggle is definitely a part of it. This was an era when Black people, and particularly Black women, were excluded from most trade unions and denied access to capital lending from banks. It was a systemic reality that forced most to resign themselves to sharecropping or menial labour. But the struggle is simply the context. It is Walker's creativity, tenacity, determination and innovation as she grows her hair-care empire that takes centre stage.  

Recognizing that white businesses had no interest in catering to Black consumers, Walker saw a gap in the market and worked to fill it. It's the ultimate story of the American dream — a narrative near and dear to Hollywood that we've all been conditioned to believe.

Octavia Spencer stars in Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (David Lee/Netflix)

But this American dream is especially resonant because it cannot be told without diving into the very real American nightmare. Walker was only one generation removed from slavery and her struggles against white supremacy, patriarchy and colourism are reminders of the multifaceted systems and deep-rooted cultural norms consistently working in tandem to prevent the success she achieved.

So many of the issues Walker faced then are prescient today. As Bundles tells me, "Whether it's women's rights, voting rights, racial violence, red lining, discrimination: all of these things that are baked into American history are still with us. So this is a time for these stories to be revisited and amplified. I think a lot of times, the historical piece is often a way to comment on the present."

Self Made is a hair story that is long overdue

When we meet Walker at the start of the series, she is heartbroken and at the end of her rope. Working as a washerwoman and taking care of her young child, Walker's hair is falling out and she looks at her reflection in the mirror with despair and spite.

This aesthetic representation of her struggle is a key component to Walker's story. Hair is what inspires her ambitious rise. Says Bundles: "Part of the story [in the series] is told through the wigs." In the early 1900s, indoor plumbing and electricity was a luxury that few Americans could afford, and infrequent hair washing led to hair loss for Walker and many other Black women.

When her second husband John Davis leaves her in the series, his parting words are cutting insults about her appearance. Walker's life begins to change when she learns what is required to care for her hair. Her confidence builds as her hair grows back and we see a broken woman begin to recognize her worth and the potential in the products that help her to develop this sense of self. "It is a hair journey, and I think women of African descent continue to have a hair journey, no matter who we are, no matter what generation," Bundles tells me.

From Good Hair to Pelo Malo, Barbershop to Hair Love, cinema has long recognized the multiplicity of stories about Black hair. But it has taken more than 100 years after her death to tell the tale of the Black woman who recognized the business potential in Black hair care. Although Walker's story has been explored in documentaries, this is the first time it is receiving this kind of narrative treatment. 

Octavia Spencer and Carmen Ejogo in Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix)

The journey has been a long one, Bundles tells me. Her book was optioned back in 2000, before it had even been officially released to the public, but the deal fell through and the option came back to her. It was optioned again a few years later by HBO, but when the writer died the option returned to Bundles once again. For a while after that, no one was interested. "There was a period of 10 years where the conventional wisdom was Black shows don't sell overseas, therefore nobody is interested," she says.

Then, almost 15 years after the book's release, there was a sea change in social consciousness. Headlines were suddenly dominated by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the success of films like Selma, The Butler and Black Panther. There was renewed attention on women directors. As Bundles says, it was the perfect storm for Madam Walker's ascent to the screen. "All of a sudden the time is right and people are desperate for these great, untold stories. We're a beneficiary of that."

Self Made is a story about Black women told by Black female talent on both sides of the camera

Self Made boasts a superstar cast including Blair Underwood as her husband C.J. Walker, Tiffany Haddish as her daughter Lelia Walker and Carmen Ejogo as her business rival Addie Munroe, plus a slew of Canadian talent including Zahra Bentham as Nettie Ransom (the wife of Walker's lawyer) and Mouna Traoré as Esther, one of her employees and a budding photographer. They are all led by Octavia Spencer, who Bundles says is perfect in the role of her great-great-grandmother.

"I think she looks enough like the pictures of Madam Walker that you have no trouble believing that she is that person. But I also think just with a slight nuance of a facial expression, she shows you the pain, she shows you the fortitude, she shows you the courage."

The series is brought to life by a behind-the-scenes team of Black female talent including showrunners Janine Sherman Barrios (Claws) and Elle Johnson (Bosch) and directors Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve's Bayou) and DeMane Davis (Queen Sugar).

Mouna Traoré in Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix)

Selfishly, I really hope the series will inspire audiences to research the real-life story of a phenomenal but lesser-known woman of the period: Annie Turnbo Malone. In the series, a chance meeting with a door-to-door saleswoman named Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo) changes Walker's life. Addie, though, is a fictional character who goes from being Walker's saviour to her fiercest rival. As I watched, I wondered — as I'm sure many others will — if she was based on Malone, whose legacy been overshadowed by Walker's in many ways. 

Bundles says that the writers would say Addie is a composite character made to embody many of the obstacles and conflicts Walker faced throughout her life, including colourism. "The real Annie Malone was not a light-skinned woman. So the colourism piece was not really a part of their conflict, but I think certainly colourism is a really important issue and it's something that any African-American woman faces at some point," Bundles says. 

Some may question this creative decision — especially because Munroe, in many ways, is positioned as the villain at the start of the series. But it highlights a tension that exists in all biopics. As Bundles reminds me: "It's not a documentary. It is trying to get at the emotional essence of Madam Walker's life." 

Bundles's book uncovered much of the story between these two women and revealed many details about the lesser but equally impressive Malone. Hopefully her fictional counterpart will encourage audiences to learn more about the real woman.

Bonus: Blair Underwood plays Octavia Spencer's love interest. Need I say more?

Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood in a scene from Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix)

Blair Underwood is for generation X what Billy Dee Williams was for the baby boomers. He's an actor who can seduce any and all genders with an overabundance of charm, and his charisma basically oozes off the screen. If you watched Set it Off in the '90s or Sex and the City in the early 2000s, you understand what I'm talking about. 

Although Spencer is one of the most booked and busy Black female actresses in Hollywood, it's rare that we get to see her romanced and adored on screen. Although (spoiler alert) their marriage doesn't last long, it's nice to watch him be her biggest cheerleader — at least for a little while.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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