Brief Synopsis: When black washerwoman Sarah Breedlove’s (Octavia Spencer) hair begins to fall out due to life’s stresses a chance meeting with hair ointment saleswoman Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo) helps her to regrow her hair and regain her confidence.
When Addie refuses to accept Sarah as a salesperson, seeing her as no more than a washerwoman, Sarah strikes out on her own, working under her second husband’s name, C. J. Walker (Blair Underwood) and build an empire selling hair care products to black women across North America.
Is it any good?: Yes and no. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker is entertaining and the acting is first-rate across the board. The story is interesting and resonates with anyone who has ever felt like an underdog.
Unfortunately, the telling of the story is somewhat uneven not only in execution but in tone. Spanning four episodes and running for just over three hours, Self Made should have had more of an emotional impact and worked better than it did.
Spoiler territory: Sarah Breedlove is a washerwoman and she is struggling to make ends meet and with hair loss. Her husband, Davis (Robert Ifedi), returns to the home a drunkard after a period in prison. He leaves her, disgusted by her appearance. At her wit’s end, Sarah is about to give up on life but then she meets Addie Munroe.
Addie takes pity on her and helps her to regain her hair by treating her scalp with a hair balm she had come to sell. In exchange for Sarah washing her clothes, Addie continues to treat her scalp. A few years into the treatment, Sarah suggest to Addie that she could sell to her community.
Addie, an attractive woman of mixed race, does not like the idea. She does not feel that Sarah has the right look to sell her products. Sarah, determined to show Addie she can sell, takes some of the tins of hair balm and sells all of them. She returns to Addie with, what she feels is, good news.
Addie is furious and tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she is not the type of look that she wants to be associated with her product. Sarah is crestfallen. She returns home and her new husband, C. J. Walker, comes in to congratulate her on becoming a new saleswoman. Sarah tells her that she never got the job and what Addie thought of her.
Sarah decides she is going to make her own hair balm. Her balm immediately takes off in St. Louis attracting the ire of Addie. Addie comes to see Sarah and tells her that she will fail and that she will have clothes waiting for her to wash. Sarah continues to go from strength to strength.
Sarah tells C. J. that they need to move to expand. C. J. does not want to move. They move to Indianapolis, with Sarah daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish) and her new husband, John Robinson (J. Alphonse Nicholson). Sarah does not approve of John. She thinks he is a wastrel.
In Indianapolis, Sarah opens a hair salon. It does not go well and business is, initially, non-existent. C. J. Is ready to give up and go and work for somebody else. Sarah refuses to go back to being a washerwoman. Desperate, Sarah goes to the market and tells her story and offers black women the chance to look better, gain confidence and make their own money.
She decides to do hair for free to get the business started. The business is soon flourishing. Sarah wants to expand more. C. J. wants to be more cautious. Sarah wants to make the company legal. C. J. introduces her to Ransom (Kevin Carroll), a lawyer working as a bellhop at a local hotel. Ransom is reluctant to get involved. After an unsavoury incident at the hotel, he takes the job.
Addie follows Sarah to Indianapolis and opens a salon. The women are at war. Addie comes to the local black church and makes a play for Sarah’s customers. Sarah hits back with a better deal but it means more production. In the efforts to increase production, the little favoured John leaves the product unattended and the salon burns down.
Addie takes the opportunity to steal all of Sarah’s customers. Sarah decides that she will adopt the name Madam C. J. Walker. Sarah approaches the prominent black businessmen in Indianapolis in an effort to open a factory. The men are reluctant to back a woman, addressing C. J. during the discussions. They turn her down. Sarah realises she needs more. She is determined to get Booker T. Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith), the most prominent black man in the city, to endorse her.
Sarah is determined to get to see Booker T. Roman tells her that Theodore (Martin Roach), the mortician and most prominent businessman in town, wants to talk to her. She goes to see him but he tries to rape her in exchange for his endorsement.
C. J. gets tickets for Booker T.’s talk but tells Sarah that she can only come to be with the women. Sarah will not accept that and insists on going to the talk. At the talk, Washington introduces Addie to the stage but he does not let her speak. Sarah tries to persuade Washington’s wife, Margaret (Kimberly Huie), to put in a word but Margaret is reluctant, telling Sarah she does not involve herself with her husband’s business.
Ransom invest in Sarah’s venture, not realising that the money he got from his cousin, Sweetness (Bill Bellamy) is illicit. After being coerced by Sarah to talk to Washington whilst he was in the bathroom, C. j. tells Sarah that Washington is coming to dinner. As the night wears on and Washington does not show, Sarah gets the real story out of C. J.
Ransom rings a friend to find out about Washington’s thoughts. He tells Sarah that Washington has no interest in women’s beauty products and thinks them frivolous. An angry Sarah kicks everyone out of the house. Lelia has her sexuality challenged by Esther (Mouna Traoré).
C. J. gets this head turned by Dora (Sydney Morton), who persuades him to come to a jazz club with her. Sarah decides to try with Margaret again. She talks at Washington’s next conference but he is not pleased by her gracing his stage and talking about female enterprise and tells her so in the most chauvinistic of terms.
Sarah wants to remortgage the house to build the factory. C. J. is opposed to the idea but Sarah goes ahead with it anyway. C. J. feels emasculated. Margaret’s women group come to the rescue financing the factory opening. John goes to see Addie. He will get her information on Sarah for a price. Ransom sees Dora and C. J. getting closer.
Sarah’s business is quickly expanding and she recruits more sales agents as well as opening five more salons with her top saleswomen. Sarah suspects John is up to something. C. J. comes up with a new ad campaign. It does not look anything like Sarah who is dark-skinned. C. J.’s ad depicts a light-skinned woman.
Sarah wants to go to New York to expand the business. She wants to see the most successful store owner in the country, Winston Moreland (Michael Brown). She hopes to put her products in his stores. In New York, Sarah and Lelia are blown away by the amount of and variety of black people they see. C. J. stays back. Dora continues to seduce C. J.
John searches for Sarah’s hair balm formula. C. J.’s father, Cleophus (Garrett Morris) tries to warn him about dallying with Dora. Sarah tries to sell her products to Moreland but he is not so receptive without C. J. around.
Dora gets the other top agents to jump ship and work for Addie. Back at the restaurant, W. E. B. Dubois (Cornelius Smith Jr.), a prominent civil rights activist, comes into the restaurant. He knows of and recognises Sarah. He comments on her notoriety, having heard about her speech at Washington’s conference.
Sarah returns to find out that her top five agents have left to work with Addie. At the same time, Sweetness comes and blindsides her, telling her he is an investor in her business. Sarah goes to see Dora and catches her with C. J. Ransom fights with his cousin. Sarah kicks C. j. out.
Sarah shows the board of Moreland’s stores around the factory but a drunk C. J. interrupts the meeting ending her chance of getting her products in the stores. Cleophus tells Lelia that John has been seeing Addie. Addie goes and catches him and tells him she is going to divorce him.
Sarah decides to expand into New York. Lelia will go ahead and set up the salon. Lelia plans to go with Esther but Esther gets cold feet and does not show up for the trip. C. J. tries to get back together with Sarah. She rejects him.
Sarah opens a new salon, The Dark Tower, in Harlem. Sarah moves to New York. At a party celebrating the move, Sarah collapses. When the doctor comes and sees her, he tells her that her kidneys are failing and she only has a year to live. Sarah does not tell anybody. She decides to have a convention.
Sarah tells Leila that she wants a grandchild and that she needs to get a husband. C. J. turns up in New York. He wants a divorce. Lelia goes to see her girlfriend, Peaches (Keeya King). Peaches tells her that she knows the heir to the Saunders drugstore chain and can help get the products into his stores.
At a photoshoot for the hair products, Sarah meets the young model, Fairy Mae Bryant (Kiki Hammill). Addie rings Sarah and threatens to expose her for stealing her hair balm formula. Sarah goes to see Percy Saunders (Stuart Hughes) to try and get her products into his drugstores. The meeting goes well and he is happy to do business with her.
Sarah goes to see C. J. After spending some time with him, she signs the divorce papers. She catches Lelia kissing Peaches. She tells Lelia that she is dying and wants an heir. Lelia promises to settle down. The next day, Sarah is having a meeting with Ransom. Ransom is distracted. Sarah asks what is up with him. He tells her that Sweetness took his son out for some ice cream but cross some white men and ended up getting lynched.
Sarah returns to Indianapolis for Sweetness’ funeral. Addie confronts her. Sarah returns to New York to host her convention. Her employees are protesting on her lawn about her death with the Saunders drug company. They feel it will put their salons out of business. Sarah goes to see her neighbour, John D. Rockefeller (Frank Moore). She tells him that she is having trouble with her employees. He tells her to ignore them and fire them.
The disgruntled employees continue to protest as the party continues in the house. Sarah releases Leila from her obligation to give her an heir. Lelia tells her that she has adopted Fairy Mae. Sarah decides against the deal with the white-owned Saunders drugstore chain, telling her gathered employees that they will be the ones to grow her business. The end.
Final thoughts: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker is an entertaining, if mildly frustrating, four-parter. Octavia Spencer is perfectly cast as the driven and determined Sarah Breedlove/Madam C. J. Walker. One believes her when she is downtrodden and feeling low but also when she bullishly steps into the white and male-dominated world of business.
Carmen Ejogo is also good as the jealous Addie Munroe, likewise, Blair Underwood’s C. J. Walker is totally believable as the ignored spouse. Tiffany Haddish dials back her usual gregariousness to play the sexually confused Lelia, her relationship and chemistry with Spencer working brilliantly.
Sydney Morton’s Dora fills out the secondary bad-light-skinned-girl role with aplomb also. The music for the series is also very good, driving a positive message of entrepreneurship. At forty-five to forty-nine minutes an episode and well-paced, Self Made, moves along quite quickly, the story being compelling enough to make you want to watch the next episode.
With the writing credited to five different writers, with the bulk of the writing going to A’leila Bundles – who wrote the book the mini-series is based on – and Tyger Williams. The directing of the episodes is split between Demane Lewis – episodes three and four – and Kasi Lemmons – one and two.
The frustrating thing with Self Made is the tone. More specifically, its unevenness. There are a lot of really powerful scenes in the series as a whole, as well as some interesting commentary on colour as a whole even just within the black race. Unfortunately, Ejogo’s Addie is somewhat cartoonish at points in her relentless pursuit in the destruction of Sarah.
There are hints of a deeper character in the series – when she speaks with her, much darker-skinned, mother and her violent relationship with her ex-spouse. This is all left by the wayside, Ejogo instead required to go full Disney villainess. Underwood to suffers the same fate, his C. J. initially portrayed as a good, supportive man but is slowly reduced to a drunken buffoon. In fact, except for Carroll’s Ransom, all of the black men in the series are portrayed as misogynist, weak-willed or buffoons.
Light-skinned women do not come out much better, a surprise considering both the directors are light-skinned women. Both the aforementioned Ejogo’s Addie and Morton’s Dora are portrayed as looks blessed but character deficient. And when C. J. shows Sarah his idea for a campaign it depicts an image of an idealised, light-skinned. black woman on a bicycle, something that is shown as playing on Sarah’s psyche as she is taunted by a beautiful ‘Walker’ girl on a bike portrayed by Joanne Jansen.
The series does not settle on a tone, even for an entire episode. Sometimes it is serious at other times it is uplifting, which would work if one was given any time to know any of the characters. Even Spencer’s Sarah is not entirely fleshed out enough for one to know what drives her so relentlessly, even at the expense of her marriage, to pursue her dream.
One, of course, understands that for women, especially black women, that it was a difficult time in history. Such was the life of all black people at that time, a point driven home by Bellamy’s Sweetness getting lynched in the final episode. Still, it does not allow us to understand what it was that made her believe she could rise above her circumstances to become the ‘Oprah’ of her generation.
The racism that Sarah would – less than thirty years after emancipation – have faced, is barely touched upon. Because of this somewhat lightweight approach to the story, the heavier aspects seem somewhat out of place, crashing in on proceedings but not in a shocking way, more of an intrusive jolt.
There are some creative decisions that are…interesting. We get occasional glimpses into Sarah’s mind but it is not consistent enough to be integral to the plot so, once again, they seem a little out of place. Self Made, strangely, suffers from being too short. There is clearly more to the story than is portrayed and far more strands which could have been explored, not to mention the fleshing out of the characters.
That being said, Self Made is an enjoyable mini-series that I watched – all three-plus hours of – in one sitting. It is good enough to make one take an interest in the life of Madam C. J. Walker and if, for no other reason, it is worth watching for that.