[Series] Strong Female Leads to Follow on Streaming Giants: Self Made, Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

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IMBD Score: 7.6

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

Self Made (2020) is a limited web series that recently premiered on Netflix in March 2020. It is made of 4 episodes that overpass the life of Madam C.J. Walker. The premise of the series is very straight forward: search of identity. Before she is Madam Walker, our protagonist is an abandoned widow who washes laundry to keep the stove running in the house. The hardships of life return her… hair loss. Shortly after, a mulatto saleswoman shows her a product that makes her hair grow. It works magic because then Madam “C.J. Walker” has a boost of self-confidence and she meets her second husband (C.J. Walker) that gives her the iconic name. The rest of the story illustrates her struggle to start her own hair business and exist with this new independent identity between the 1880s and 1890s. Spoiler alert—Madam becomes America’s first Black, self made female millionaire; she also has had a mansion next to John D. Rockefeller’s! (Thank you OprahMag.)

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While a limited web series makes an extraordinary story like Madam Walker’s accessible globally, there are surely stylistic comments to be made. Self Made aims to be a genre binding series between a historical drama, and documentary series. However, the combination is not smooth, and it makes awkward storytelling at times. The audience wants to feel for the characters and the series does not let such a connection happen. This may also be due to the great impression of x (as Madam C.J. Walker), as the character increasingly distances herself as the story progresses. I would have preferred to observe the darker side of it all from episode 3 and onwards; Instead, episodes 3-4 show the audience truly begins to see Madam shine. The storytelling is so focused on the greatness of her success (as Madam also was at the time), that the audience cannot take a step back and feel for her.

While there is more than one production company involved, the show definitely carries the heaviness of Warner Bros Television most. If you watch a number of WB films, you’ll know what I mean. The set décor and gloomy cinematography beg to differ but sadly gives a fictional Harry Potter World vibe upon the opening of episode 1.

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Self Made has many contemporary details—from the soundtrack (great selection), to inner circle struggles (as illustrated between the Madam and the mulatto saleswoman Addie), as well as a topic I want to focus on specifically, the queer identity in the late 1800s. Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker,  was shown to be queer in the series. While diversity in TV is happening more today, as it should be, I have a hard time believing A’Lelia’s portrayal to be true. According to Harlem renaissance dancer Mabel Hampton, “There was men and women, women and women, and men and men, and everyone did whatever they wanted to do” when A’Lelia took over her mother’s business in Harlem. In the series, A’lelia’s coming out is so smooth that it seems to undermine her experience not to take the attention away from the line of action that the show requires. However, I must note that Tiffany Haddish (A’lelia) steals the show in the last two episodes, and she makes a great figure alongside the ever strong Octavia Spencer (Madam C.J. Walker).

Self Made is a mini informative series that has many problems to undermines the true power of its story. It is inspiring yet disappointing as it fails to meet expectations.

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