"The real Madam C.J. Walker was America’s first self-made female millionaire, a philanthropist, and the founder of a company that gave black women economic freedom in the form of independent jobs and income," says Alexis Nedd. "Her true story of unprecedented rags-to-riches success deserves to be told with all the pomp and glamour seen in costume dramas that exist with far less at stake. Self Made delivers none of that, and only gets worse as it goes on. The best thing that could be said about Self Made on Netflix is that it appears to be the first draft of a miniseries that wouldn’t be good by draft five, but might have gotten a little better. Its writing is elementary and at times egregious, with characters repeating the same expository lines three times in one episode and barely keeping any of each episode’s nine plots moving forward. The rest of the dialogue is a jumble of cliches, with cartoonish stock villains characters scheming to take the Walker Hair Company down while Octavia Spencer half-tries to add depth to Madam Walker’s interminable tirades about hope, hard work, and legacy...The story of America’s first woman millionaire should look and feel as expensive as do stories about fictional Georgian-era sex workers or three generations of people being mean over dinner. Instead, the lack or mismanagement of Self Made’s budget is obvious onscreen. The costumes fit poorly, the minimal CGI is rough, and the wigs — how do you tell the story of a woman who founded a hair company and not shell out for decent wigs? The aura of cheapness feels out of place on Netflix and lasts until the final credits roll. Self Made’s failures generate disappointment more than any other emotion. With each cringeworthy moment and flat line of dialogue, one can almost see the show become disappointed with itself. This isn’t how the Netflix audience should see Madam C.J. Walker’s story. It’s disheartening that Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is a flop, and the rarity of seeing stories like Madam Walker’s on screen only makes the apparent lack of care put into its production even more disrespectful."
Octavia Spencer gives it the best she's got, but Self Made's inconsistency emerges from the show’s attempt to present outdated politics as progressive: "The most disappointing thing about Self-Made is that it was made for someone like me—not just because I’m a black woman, but because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," says Rachelle Hampton. "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."
Self Made is, sadly, a disservice to Madam C.J. Walker: "Where Self Made ultimately fails, in four episodes that are each roughly 45 minutes to an hour long, is to give a very firm idea of who Walker was or how she built her empire," says Tambay Obenson. "It instead relies too much on an unwarranted flair in order to tell, what on paper, is an already thrilling story of a black woman — born to former slaves just after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — who eventually became the richest self-made woman in America of her time. There are more than enough tales of legendary rivalries and turbulent relationships in this mostly untold and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America."
Self Made deftly glams up Madam C.J. Walker's history: The Netflix miniseries "is an anachronistic act of wish fulfillment meant for the slice of the viewership that has only recently gotten to see its history depicted with spice and luxury in a short-run series like this – or, truly, any kind of series," says Melanie McFarland. "Here, by way of Nicole Asher's script, the underappreciated legacy of the first black woman millionaire Sarah Breedlove, known to history as Madam C. J. Walker (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) receives a scripted treatment replete with dance numbers, rosy lighting, and an imaginary boxing match...It also confidently strides through such nagging issues as colorism, class discrimination, and sexism black people visited upon each other in post-slavery, pre-Gilded Age America, all while it caresses, thoughtfully, the complex social and personal issues wrapped up in the relationship between black dignity and our hair, and the impossible, ugly beauty standards erected as an obstacle to opportunity. Naturally, I expect a lot of people won't be amused by such a high-concept treatment of this inspiring true story. The broader American public is unfamiliar with Madam C.J. Walker's legacy as a beauty industry pioneer. Most high school history curricula skip over her contributions to black entrepreneurial history and her support of the Harlem Renaissance in their slapdash black history month lesson plans. To the generation that knows who she is, however, her name is synonymous with entrepreneurial drive, innovation and the timeless dynamism summed up as hustle."
Octavia Spencer's performance is dazzling: "The role of pioneer comes naturally to her, and her character shows the scars of what it means to be a successful woman in a community and era where there were few," says Lorraine Ali. "Men are threatened by her power: Booker T. Washington says he’d 'rather endorse a palm reader than a hair culturist.' Female peers forsake her. Societal norms run counter to everything she hopes to achieve. And Spencer conveys all that victory and pain with compelling authenticity. The rest of the cast look as though they had a blast bringing this story to life. Walker’s partner (Blair Underwood) struggles with his wife’s increasing independence. Her daughter, Leila (Tiffany Haddish), is a firecracker who provides moral support and comedic relief. Garrett Morris plays her tenacious father-in-law, the formerly enslaved Cleophus, while Kevin Carroll is her lawyer, Ransom, and Bill Bellamy is Ransom’s shifty cousin, Sweetness."
Self Made is too afraid of complications mucking up its feel-good narrative: "Despite the ever-increasing size of (Madam Walker's) empire and the occasional outrageousness of her plans, Self-Made quickly feels repetitive: Her loved ones keep betraying her," says Inkoo Kang. "But the interpersonal dramas fail to register because Sarah has few flaws of her own — it's everyone else who needs to recognize her genius and get out of her way. The production's deliberate chronological confusion also makes it sometimes hard to appreciate how revolutionary Sarah's ideas and accomplishments actually are. Too often, Self-Made feels like a portrait of an insurrectionist standing in a white void."
Octavia Spencer on the importance of telling Madam C.J. Walker's story: “Madam C.J. is known in the black community,” Spencer tells The Wrap. “But that’s why it’s important. I felt it was important to tell her story not only so that she would be a shining example of black excellence, but also an example of what she actually achieved to the world … She was a multi-faceted woman and she contributed so much, not only to black culture, but to our culture and society as a whole.” Spencer adds: “I was raised with Madam C.J. as a standard-bearer in my home. My mom used her as an example to demonstrate to my siblings and I, because we were born of humble beginnings as well, what we could dream of ourselves … So I’ve known about her my whole life, and that’s why I thought it was time for her story to be told. So other young people could aspire to greatness."