By any account, Sarah Breedlove led an extraordinary life. Better known as Madam C.J. Walker, at the time of her death in 1919, she was widely considered not only the wealthiest black businesswoman but the wealthiest self-made woman of any race in America. Though countless black children like me were taught growing up that she was the first black millionaire, that particular title is now in question. Still, as her community struggled in the immediate aftermath of emancipation against poverty, segregation, and the constant threat of extrajudicial violence, she built an empire creating and marketing black hair care products. She had few qualms with ostentatious displays of her wealth—in what is perhaps the most famous photo of her, she is shown driving one of her multiple cars in a finely tailored coat, a jaunty plume in her hat. She summered at a mansion in Hudson Valley and was a generous benefactor to organizations like the YMCA and the NAACP, where she helped fund an anti-lynching campaign. Her circle of friends included luminaries like W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Walker’s rags-to-riches story is one long overdue for the screen. That’s what makes Netflix’s new Octavia Spencer–led miniseries Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker all the more disappointing. Despite the ample time provided by four 45-minute episodes, the series—adapted from A’Lelia Bundles’ book On Her Own Ground by Nicole Asher, with the first two episodes directed by Kasi Lemmons—chooses to largely skip over the particulars of Walker’s early life. We see only brief flashbacks of her formative years in Louisiana, where she was born the child of formerly enslaved sharecroppers. We see nothing of the marriage she entered at 14 to escape an abusive brother-in-law that left her a widowed mother at 20. (Her second marriage, which ended in a similarly tragic fashion, doesn’t get quite as short shrift, in that it’s actually mentioned.) Her affinity for hair began when she began to lose her own, and it is here, in the last decade or so of her life, that we properly meet her.
The eminently talented Spencer gives it the best she’s got, despite some truly cringeworthy dialogue. But once her business is established as a success near the end of Chapter 2, the plot devolves into a series of telenovela storylines. Sarah’s husband C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood) has an affair because she doesn’t involve him enough in the business. Her quirky, free-spirited daughter, Lelia—played, to little success, by Tiffany Haddish, who you half-expect to make a joke after every ostensibly serious line—divorces her husband who was acting as a corporate spy for Walker’s competition and eventually comes out. Yet despite Breedlove’s eventual acceptance of her sexuality, the only exclusively gay moments up until the last half hour of the show are a few chaste scenes of hand-holding between Haddish and her paramours.*
Walker was largely made rich through marketing hair-straightening techniques to black women. A girl she describes as having the most beautiful hair she’s ever seen has waist-length ringlets, and the only time we see Walker’s natural hair texture in the show is when she is down on her luck in the first episode. The message that black women’s natural hair is only beautiful when long, with visibly defined curls is one that still plagues the natural hair community today. But when Walker is challenged, by no less than Booker T. Washington (Roger Guenveur Smith), for building an empire on black women’s attempts to fit Eurocentric ideals of presentability, she dismisses the concern: “I have no interest in making colored women look white. I want us to feel beautiful, too.”
Walker repeatedly extols the virtues of being respectable, saying to a group of women that if one of them looks that way, “we all look respectable. Everything we do as Negroes reflects back on us.” It’s a position that makes sense for a black woman to have at the turn of the 20th century, during the period when respectability politics emerged as an attempt by the black elite to “uplift the race” through assimilation. It was then that Du Bois’ idea of the talented tenth, that the best of the black community could lift the rest as they climbed, really took hold.*
Self-Made’s inconsistency largely emerges from the show’s attempt to present outdated politics as progressive. The idea of uplifting the black community through the success of a select few is left unchallenged, and we’re meant to clap when Walker takes Washington to task for his refusal to allow women into that select few. When Walker’s workers go on strike in the final episode, her decision to forgo a business deal so as not to make thousands of black women’s jobs obsolete is presented as benevolent, rather than the result of an economic system that allows individuals to unilaterally decide whether their employees will be able to put food on the table.
Perhaps the only place where the show’s attempt to balance the politics of the story’s time and our own is successful is in the way it deals with colorism. One of Lemmons’ strengths as a director lies in the way she captures intra-community tension. Though her choice to include a black slave catcher in Harriet was criticized online, it got at the idea that the black community is not monolithic in its politics—even under bondage. In Self-Made, almost all of the obstacles that Walker faces are not from white people but from her own community. Perhaps the most interesting relationship Walker has in the show is with a woman named Addie Munroe (Selma’s Carmen Ejogo). Munroe is introduced as Walker’s wealthy, light-skinned antithesis, and she and her hair-growing formula are originally presented as saviors when Walker is losing her hair and her hope at the beginning of the show. But when Walker asks to help Munroe sell her product, Munroe bluntly tells her that she doesn’t have the right look. Walker protests that black women know that no matter how much product they slather on they’ll never have Munroe’s light waist-length hair, which we later learn is the product of a nonconsensual relationship between Munroe’s mother and a plantation owner. Still, Munroe responds that “Colored women will do anything to look like me. Even if deep down they know they can’t.” The rivalry between Walker and Munroe, who is based on Walker’s real-life competitor Annie Malone, is in many ways the driving narrative tension of the show.
The politics of skin tone and the privilege afforded to black people who are lighter skinned is still a delicate subject—movies like School Daze and shows like A Different World and, more recently, Black-ish have all tackled the subject. But it and its sister texturism (prejudice against tight, kinky coils in favor of loose curls) are by no means as well-tread a topic in black film and television as something like police brutality. For Self-Made to make it so central to the show is nothing to sneeze at. But even then, some of the ways it’s presented are truly questionable scene choices. One of the first ways the tension between Munroe and Walker is depicted is as an imaginary boxing match between the two, spliced throughout the first episode.
The most disappointing thing about Self-Made is that it was made for someone like me—not just because I’m a black woman, but because I love historical fiction, even when it’s so bad that it’s good. I’ve gone on the record as adoring things that are both corny and objectively trash, but when a show starts with such rich source material and ends up with lines like “Massa may have cursed me with a daughter, but you got light bright skin and good hair,” even I can’t stomach it. Perhaps the most captivating moment of the entire show was when Walker and her daughter experience Harlem for the first time. As the camera careens between the faces of black people walking down those famous streets, I caught myself hoping that maybe we’d leave off the story we had started, and begin another one that already looked more interesting.
Correction, March 20, 2020: This article originally misattributed the idea of a “talented tenth” to Booker T. Washington. It was created by W.E.B. Du Bois. It also misstated the nature of Tiffany Haddish’s coming out scenes.