Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

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The four-part Netflix biopic Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020) stars Octavia Spencer as Sarah Breedlove, who became America’s first female self-made millionaire. Her story — and hair products — were well-known in the African-American community, and it’s about damn time everyone else learns about her because Breedlove, aka Madame Walker, was one hell of an inspirational entrepreneur and bad-ass pioneering woman.

I’d say the “inspired by” in the title is to keep the nitpickers from whining about historical inaccuracies, but the miniseries doesn’t play fast and loose with history, IMO, it just does the standard, if minor, timeline shifts and character exaggerations that biopics always do for sake of dramatic tension.

The production is based on the book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, written and researched by Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, who has been generally quite positive about the Netflix show. She told Bustle:

“There are things that I would have done differently. I would have emphasized Madam Walker’s friendships with some of the women who mentored her … and I would have done more with her political involvement.”

Bundles also explained specific historical points that were changed for the series to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and said, “A four-part series can only scratch the surface, so I truly hope viewers will be inspired to want to learn more about Madam Walker!”

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Most striking are the fantasy sequences that act out Walker’s internal monologue or dreams, and, of course, these aren’t meant to be realistic. What rings true is Walker’s self-determination, growing business acumen, and her inclusivity for other black women. In an Essence interview, co-executive producer and co-writer Nicole Jefferson Asher explained that the fantasy elements weren’t added just for the sake of doing it but:

“…to really get us deeper into her imagination, and on another level, to show what was special about her, what made her unique and what enabled her to do what no one had done before. This was a woman who didn’t go to school. She had to teach herself to read. And she ended up becoming a millionaire in her lifetime. So that takes a tremendous imagination. And so we wanted to use interstitials, fantasy elements, magic realism, all of these things to be able to put the viewer in her mind.”

And cinematographer Kira Kelly not only enjoyed creating those moments, as she said in an interview with Fresh Fiction, she felt they revealed more of Madam C.J. Walker’s character:

“I love all Madam’s self-reflective, internalized moments. There are moments, like the interstitials, that see us playing with the mirror motif. You can see people’s success stories, but then you realize there had to have been some level of self-doubt. I like that we were able to explore a lot with Madam’s internal moments and see how she grappled with never being able to stop pushing forward.”

Central to Walker’s story and her products are the power of hair and the confidence of looking how you want to. Even today, African-American hair is policed and the subject of controversy, so it’s understandable that Madame C.J. Walker would be able use her own story to sell her products and help women. Hair styling products aren’t just ‘self care,’ they’re empowerment and equality. Asher said in the St. Louis American:

“One of the things that I think is most significant and I think makes her different from every other capitalist is that she really was very invested in building up other women,” Asher said. “She saw the connection of how her upliftment meant that other people could rise, and black women really did need a leg up. Even the way she built her company, she really encouraged women to become self-sufficient and open their own salons. That was really masterful and takes her business acumen to a whole other level. She deserves her rightful place in history.”

Octavia Spenser agreed, saying in the Boston Globe:

“What’s interesting to me is that Self Made is about Black hair, because that’s what she built her empire on. But it’s not really about hair. It’s about empowerment and beauty, about Black women not having access, about products actually not even being made for Black women to feel beautiful. From that confidence and inner beauty comes empowerment. Lots of stories are being made about hair now, but it’s not really about hair. Not to me, at least. There’s also such a focus now on Black hair in schools, how kids can wear their hair, and that really is also about empowerment, symbolically speaking.”

Early on, the series frankly addresses discrimination within the African-American community, filtering down from white racist society, against darker skinned people. Director Kasi Lemmons said in Vibe:

“People have said horrible things to people with darker skin, especially in the early part of the century. We knew we needed to be willing to look at that history while appreciating Sarah’s self-empowerment. She ultimately puts her face on her products.”

Another interesting theme in this show is sexism and how Sarah’s work affected her marriage to Mr. C.J. Walker (played by Blair Underwood). As Lemmons told Dig Boston:

“Madam C.J. Walker is a very dynamic, very forward-thinking woman. Extremely ahead of her time. Self-motivated. Driven to succeed. And she has a vision of what her future can be that is completely outside the box [with regards to] the reality of African-American women in her time. How she copes with her family, how she copes with her marriage, and how her husband copes with her as a visionary black woman … I mean, even right now, many people consider a visionary black woman to be a very intimidating person, right? We still struggle with how the world treats us, and how to be accepted on our own terms.

She was decades and decades and decades ahead of her time. I was interested in the effect that had on her marriage. And of course that’s very relatable, even in a modern context.”

As we always say, there’s no spoilers in history, but there’s one storyline in this miniseries that might be invented yet I want to address. So it’s kind of spoilery to discuss in detail. I’ll just say that the one queer relationship is based on factual settings if not actual events, thus plausible and didn’t bother me (click the links for details).

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

As told in this series, the ups and downs of Walker’s life are sometimes melodramatic, but always entertaining, and Octavia Spencer gives the role heart, pathos, and grit. Tiffany Haddish has a pivotal role as Walker’s daughter Lelia, and Blair Underwood plays her husband Mr. C.J. Walker. But it’s really the Octavia Spencer show, and it’s a good one. Her face and her eyes convey so many things, I want to watch her in a million more things.

 

Costumes in Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J. Walker

The story starts in 1908 and most of it takes place in the 1910s, covering an 18-year span. The costume designers are Karyn Wagner, who also did Underground (2016-2017). In Variety, Wagner described how she used the 1903 book by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, that had pictures from the Paris World’s Fair: “It showed photos of affluent African Americans. He wanted to get people’s minds away from the poor sharecropper image of the African American.”

Only a few photos of Madam C.J. Walker herself exist. The most frequently seen is this portrait:

1914 - Madam C.J. Walker via Wikimedia Common

1914 – Madam C.J. Walker via Wikimedia Commons

There’s this less documentable one:

Madam C.J. Walker via Biography.com

Madam C.J. Walker via Biography.com

And then a glimpse of her driving her car:

1911 - Madam C.J. Walker via Wikimedia Commons

1911 – Madam C.J. Walker via Wikimedia Commons

So there isn’t a ton to compare with. But it’s reasonable to think that as soon as she had money, she tried to be as fashionable as she could. She indulged in the luxury of owning a car when that was rare, but she also paid her employees (most of whom were women) more than they could make elsewhere and she gave extensively to charities. The costume designs for this series are not extravagant until a few scenes in the last episode, but there is a progression shown from struggling lower class to solid middle class to more wealth.

Flashbacks to Sarah Breedlove’s childhood on a plantation right after the Emancipation Proclamation and her early life as poor washer-woman are contrasted with her increasing success as a businesswoman. Key to this transformation are the walking suits costume designer Karyn Wagner created. She said of this type of outfit:

“She’s a woman in a man’s world — a woman of color. She wants to speak to the fact that she has arrived. The vest is almost like a man’s jacket, but the fabric is hand-embroidered and very feminine. The huge hat and her two-toned shoes speak to her wealth — that she has enough shoes in her closet that can be cleaned or ruined.”

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

This is probably the best of all Madam’s suits.

June 1914 - fashion plate - The Delineator via University of Iowa

And it’s the strikingly similar to the design on the left from this June 1914 fashion plate from The Delineator via University of Iowa.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

This looks like it was bought off-the-rack last week at Talbots.

September 1915 - fashion plate - The Delineator via University of Iowa

Compare & contrast with these plus-size fashions from September 1915 in The Delineator via University of Iowa.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

This scene is in 1918 when Madam is wealthy & successful. I have no idea what this suit is trying to be — the trim is vaguely ‘teens, but everything else reads, IDK, 1980s?

1917 - fashion plate - DeGracieuse via the Met Museum

Just for comparison, this is a more fashionable suit shape, as seen in a 1917 fashion plate via the Met Museum.

For Madame Walker’s costumes, Wagner also made a point of using lots of color, which became popular in the 19th century. She told Variety: “The new aniline dyes from the Victorian era were bright.” Cinematographer Kira Kelly also commented on the use of color in the series:

“The showrunners and Netflix were clear at the beginning that they did not want a sepia-toned biopic. I love those, but we all wanted it to be more colorful and have a modern twist. That color is not only visible on the set and apparent in the film color grade but also in Madam’s outfits. We didn’t want anything to feel standard.”

Sometimes the use of color works, and sometimes I feel like it’s haphazard and not the right aesthetic for the period.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

While the colors of Lelia’s aren’t to my taste, the pattern & scale of the check are appropriate for the period.

September 1915 - fashion plate - The Delineator via University of Iowa

Compare with the image on the right from this September 1915 fashion plate from The Delineator via University of Iowa.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Likewise, the cut and fit of the costumes sometimes is fine and sometimes is just off for the historical era. I can’t imagine this was a budget issue because Netflix has scads of money and this production was backed by all kinds of big names. It’s a pity because frock flick watchers will be distracted and not appreciate this new story, while those who don’t usually watch frock flicks and tune in for the fascinating story may think a lot of people in this historical period dressed kind of frumpy.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

And then I wonder how much of these variations are intentional and due to class differences. Madam, her daughter, most of their customers, even their fellow churchgoers are middle-class and just barely not poor. Compare their clothes to that of Sarah’s fictionalized competitor Addie (played by Carmen Ejogo) and especially the society club ladies — all of these upper-class African-American women tend to wear clothes that fit better and are in more sophisticated color schemes with elegant trims.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Well-clad wives.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

A range of simpler clothing at Walker’s church.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Saleswomen at Walker’s factory.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any other interviews with the costume designer to explain these differences, so this is just a theory. Another point is that costumes like the club ladies’ may be rentals, while those worn by the principles are purpose-made. And someone involved in the production wasn’t great at fitting historical clothing on plus-size figures :( :( :( Which had me go look up our favorite poster-gal for looking good in plus-size 1910s costume, Kathy Bates in Titanic (1997). Because it can be done, folks!

Titanic (1997) Kathy Bates

Just trying to illustrate where the curves could have gone. Obvs, this was a big-budget flick, but this is also a relatively minor character & she still looks fucking fabulous & historically accurate, regardless of her size.

But at least they had great hair, right? In Vogue, director Kasi Lemmons praised the series’ hairstylist Ting Fang Liu and said:

“When we looked at photographs of black beauty of the period and what people did with their hair, especially after Madam C.J., a lot of the hairstyles look modern and relatable. You can see the progression and how we got to our full fabulousness today.”

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)
When the costumes do get fancy, that’s when things look up aesthetically. Again, this is all kind of haphazard, which is frustrating to watch from a costume point of view.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

The Walkers throw a party for Booker T. Washington, & Madam wears a lovely gown with a gorgeous hair ornament.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Hard to get a clear shot when they’re dancing, but her gown is in flattering colors & drapes beautifully.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

At the same party, Lelia wears a lovely pink gown.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Visiting NYC, Madam wears a gown made of black chinoiserie silk.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

The fit of this gown would be improved by corsetry, that much is clear up top.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

But the layered style really sets it off the stunning print & color combination.

Episode four takes place in New York City 1918, and that’s the year before Madam C.J. Walker’s death. Everything is much more glamorous since she’s definitely rich by then, and Lelia’s fashions take a turn towards the ’20s.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Bobbed hair a little early? Um, OK. But that cutout velvet really works!

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Lelia’s blue & black dress is super-fashionable. Her friend’s kimono is rather artsy, & it’s true that Lelia ran with a bohemian crowd.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

More details of Lelia’s gown.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020)

Mother & daughter evening gowns — Madam is sleek & simple, while Lelia indulges in subtle tone-on-tone prints.

 

 

Have you watched Self-Made yet? What did you think?

12 Responses

  1. thedementedfairy

    Looks like the clothes would annoy me unfortunately…another case of refusal to wear corsetry do you think? She looks a bit bag-of-washing-y to me

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Yes, I’ve seen Self-Made. I enjoyed it immensely for several reasons. The acting was excellent, how the story has resonated today with marriage dynamics (Mr Walker started off as a good man, but ego got in way & he became a cad), how it uplifts the spirit, empowerment of women, and the way it made me want to know more – I’ve reserved the book at the library, who knows when it will reopen.

    What I didn’t like so much were the costumes. Deborah Lynn Scott was able to fit Kathy Bates in Titanic and make her as Molly Brown look fantastic and a bit of a rebel – very in character of the silver baroness. Octavia Spencer looked uncorseted as she moved up in Society. The only dresses I liked was the lilac party dress, the black chinoiserie dress and the blue at the end (but it didn’t fit right imho). Obs the fitter hadn’t worked with plus size women. The really nice thing about the costumes is that they reflected Sarah’s monetary success. On the whole I gave Ms Karyn Wagner a B-.

    Reply
  3. Nzie

    Glad to hear the story is good! Been at my machine so not watching tons right now but maybe this is a good one to pop on, especially with eyes distracted (although those church ladies look amazing).

    Reply
  4. DRush76

    The story was good, but I had some issues with it . . . like the Addie Mason character. I thought this fictionalized version of Annie Malone was a bit distasteful. Some of the costumes were really nice and some were questionable. One of the characters – Madame Walker’s top sales agent – wore her hair down and trousers. I don’t know. Was that plausible?

    Reply
  5. Saraquill

    Fun fact: my great grandmother benefited from Madam’s initiatives. She studied hairdressing at one of Madam’s schools and went on to run her own business.

    Reply
    • Lynn

      Awesome! Did she have any great stories that have been passed down in family legend?

      Reply
  6. Kat

    I was a bit confused because I think Octavia Spencer said she wore corsets for this role and yet I also noticed it looked like she didn’t with a lot of the costumes.

    I did like the story but the costumes distracted me a lot. There’s this very bright flowered dress Addie wears a few times that I hated so much, it wasn’t period at all but she was supposed to be this really fashionable woman.

    It makes me a bit sad that one of the only shows focusing on a real historical black woman who found success just doesn’t look as good as it could have.

    Reply
    • Lynn

      It looks like they hired a modern costume designer who is used to seeing the frumpy Lane Bryant a la 1990s silhouette, then, rather than one who understands HOW corsets & Edwardian fashion can fit and flatter someone who is more voluptuous. What a waste of a beautiful full figure! :(

      Reply
  7. Bee

    Am I the only one who actually had major issues with the changes the show made to history? There’s a sensitive and thoughtful way to address colorism within the African American community, and turning every light-skinned character into a snobby, scheming, villian is not the way to do it. There wasn’t a single positive light-skinned character on the show. Even Booker T Washington is changed to be a massive jerk.

    The way “Addie” was portrayed was particularly bad. The real life Annie Malone was a philanthropist who hired Madame C.J. Walker as a saleswoman, not a narcissitic snob sneering, “Ew, you’re too dark to ever work for me.” At one point, there were even characters smugly laughing that her light skin isn’t enough to save her from being hit by an abusive husband.

    I’m normally okay with some changes to history, and I recognize that some light-skinned people probably were elitist jerks. But the direction Self Made went with all that was actually bad enough to turn me off the whole show. It’s hard to watch something meant to be an uplifting show focusing on women of color when it spends a bunch of its time villianizing people of color for not being the right shade.

    Reply
    • Lynn

      Thank you for pointing this out! I’m not as familiar with that dynamic myself, so it would have passed me by without a thought.

      Reply
  8. M.E. Lawrence

    That first suit of Madam’s, the blue one, is lovely and convincing. Lelia’s prescient bob might be more of her lean-bohemianism. Google-image “Irene Castle.” She cut her hair about 1914, and became an early model for the long, elegant silhouette of the ’20s.

    Reply
  9. Miriam Lewis

    I’ve watched the first episode so far–I’m liking the show–I’m only familiar with the bare bones of the history, so I’m interested to know how faithful it is to the facts. As far as the costuming goes, some of it is good and some of it seems like they hit 1980s fabric store dead stock, particular Addie’s costumes. And the cut and fit of Sarah, Madame Walker’s costumes, seemed mostly off to me–too simple compared to the other costumes. The overall production design seems great, though.

    Reply

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