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!”
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).
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:
There’s this less documentable one:
And then a glimpse of her driving her car:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
Have you watched Self-Made yet? What did you think?