Tag Archives: drama

[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.

[Underrated Mondays]: The Zodiac (2007)

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There is a new section on the blog: Underrated Mondays. In this section, I will review movies that are filmed between the years 2000 and 2010, and that I think are underrated. For the sake of clarification, movies that make it to this section will be ones that do not double their budgets (reflected as ‘gross box office data’). I expect to update this section twice: the first and third Mondays of the month.

“It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”

The first film that has the honor to start this section is The Zodiac (2007) directed by David Fincher. Despite its intriguing topic and hall of fame cast, it barely surpassed its budget of 65M USD, grossing 84.8M in the box offices. It is fairly surprising that this film did not gather greater public attention. Nonetheless, here is my limited critique of the film—do not let it blow you off; it is a film guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Zodiac is a film based on the true crimes of a Bay Area killer, active between the 1960s and 1970s who is known as the zodiac killer. For nearly five decades the police were not able to identify the killer. What makes the film so interesting is its loyalty to the real events, as well as its well-crafted ending. While much of the public criticism was due to the unsatisfactory ending that does not reveal the status of the killer, I would argue that it only places information on a fair ground in terms of storytelling—Afterall, how fair would it be to project a success that the police, reporters, and victims were not able to experience for your at-home entertainment?

Before I praise the movie, I will talk about certain problems that made me put in a little more effort to feel engaged at the very beginning of the film. I felt a lack of audience-engagement in the first half. The way the story was visually set up makes the audience feel like an outsider. While that is completely intentional, it takes away from the influence of horror that must have been given to the audience. To note, this is not entirely problematic because it would have been a genre-bending practice to change the projection; The Zodiac is a thriller and not a horror film, and there is a fine line between the two.

The first half of the movie moves rather slow until the audience recognizes the true hero. Initially, it is expected that Crime Reporter Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr.) or Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) will have greater or even partial roles in solving the crime. However, it is the underdog Cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who eventually develops an obsession to find out who this killer is; in one of the final scenes, Graysmith looks the killer in the eye and fulfills his character’s overall objective. It is later revealed that he writes a book about The Zodiac and lives a healthy life.

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Another minor thing to point out is the casting of actors. As expected, Downey Jr. is an eccentric alcoholic personality, what is unexpected is that he drops out of the movie rather quickly (aka not enough screen time). Gyllenhaal seems to reprise his role in The Proof (2005), a curious nerd figure, yet this time he grows to be a man. Ruffalo did play a grounded character as he has in various films before, however, I was pleased with his performance. I do think he deserves to be praised alongside Gyllenhaal.

Alongside such minor details that I found that was important to discuss, The Zodiac is truly intriguing, informative, and true to its compelling story. It combines publicly known facts alongside the strong influence of Robert Graysmith’s perspective. (I’d even put The Zodiac above Netflix’s latest film on Ted Bundy murders any day—you can see my review for it here). My advice to you is to stay with the movie for the first half an hour and let it hook you. By mid-movie the pace picks up and you will soon realize that it is worth the wait. This is one of the best crime-mystery films I have ever watched. The Zodiac is full of suspense, and if you watch carefully, you can be a part of hunting “the nation’s most elusive serial killer”.