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Netflix’s Self Made Tells the Inspiring True(ish) Story of a Black Trailblazer

Octavia Spencer brings the forgotten femtrepreneur to life.
  • Octavia Spencer is Sarah Breedlove in Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Netflix)
    Octavia Spencer is Sarah Breedlove in Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. (Netflix)

    Before we get to the fine print, know this — Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is a highly watchable bit of what I call rock-and-roll history. It’s a subgenre that tries to bring the past alive with modern dialogue and a ripping soundtrack. You might call it hip-hop history. Or, after you’ve read this review, you might call it fake history. Whatever you call it, Self Made is a diverting bit of info-tainment. And since we're looking to places like Netflix to take our minds off the rest of the day’s travails, especially now, this particular show has the added feature of reminding us that in America, in the not-so-distant past, many people had it a lot worse than we do.

    Self Made tells a story “inspired by” the life of one of many forgotten legends in non-white-male history. Her name was Sarah Breedlove, but to millions of black women in early 20th-century America, she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a haircare trailblazer whose legacy now includes being portrayed in a Netflix four-parter by an Oscar-winning actor, Octavia Spencer.

    When I say “inspired by,” rather than “based on,” I mean that there are characters and situations in Self Made that never remotely happened in the life of the actual Sarah Breedlove. So let’s get to the fine print — or rather, the splitting of hairs.

    Born two years after the Civil War, Breedlove grew up in poverty, was married and pregnant in her teens, and had the kind of life on the margins that literally made her hair fall out. But when a formula of petroleum jelly and sulfur proved effective in stopping and even reversing her hair loss, it changed more than her appearance.

    Lots of black women at that time were struggling with hair and scalp problems, due to the use of lye-based soaps. Breedlove saw her safe-but-effective formula as a chance to build a brand. Mrs. C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower was born, and it launched an empire that, at its peak, had thousands of women selling her products door-to-door, plus a signature salon in Harlem.

    All of this is verifiable. My wife featured Sarah Breedlove’s story in a textbook years ago. But Netflix is not educational publishing, and the show’s writer and co-executive producer, Nicole Jefferson Asher, decided a story that had been languishing in the shadows needed to come out swinging.

    That’s indeed what Sarah does in the first hour, literally, battling her demon in the boxing ring.

    In this case, the demon is her onetime mentor turned enemy, Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), who hisses that “Even in your Sunday best, you look like you just stepped off the plantation!”

    But as Eric Deggans explained in his in-depth look at the myths of Madam C.J. Walker, Addie is a caricature of a rival hair-products entrepreneur named Annie Malone. She was, indeed, an early mentor to Breedlove, but eventually became her biggest competitor. But there was no melodramatic falling-out, no revenge fantasy, no acrimony over one woman’s skin tone being darker than the other’s, and by no means were boxing gloves ever involved — all of which are suggested by Self Made.

    “One of the great things about the time we’re living in is that people can actually go to Google and look her up,” Asher, who wrote Self Made, told Deggans. “I hope this inspires them to ask, ‘Did that really exist? How did that happen?’ And to find out more.”

    Fair enough. When Oliver Stone’s movie JFK became a hit in the pre-Internet Nineties, I remember friends picking up books by Jim Garrison — the Kennedy conspiracy-theory lawyer played in the movie by Kevin Costner — and swallowing every word as if it were gospel. It’s less likely that will happen now, especially if you follow the the first page of search results, though it’s just as likely you’ll follow some clickbait on Facebook.

    Still, Asher’s point is taken. Real inner demons? Every celebrity you see pushing a beauty aid on Instagram is battling them. Don’t forget that. But this so-called biopic is here to leave you with an impression rather than a set of verifiable facts. Don’t forget that, either.

    One impression that Self Made left me with was how little black lives mattered in the America of Sarah Breedlove’s time. The period from the crushing of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights era was grim indeed for ambitious African-Americans. But the period from 1900 to 1930 was especially bad. It led to the forced migration of over a million black people out of the Deep South to points north and west, where things weren’t much better, what with sundown towns, redlining, lynchings, and race riot. Bad hair days were the least of their problems.

    This period, known as “The Nadir,” is only hinted at here and there, but I was struck by one scene at a train station. A friend is pitching one of the sleeping-car porters to quit his job and come style women’s hair down at Madam Walker’s salon. The porter is not so sure. Just then, a white train passenger complains that one of his bags is dinged, and makes a barely-veiled threat when the porter asserts the bags were given the utmost of care.

    “You calling me a liar?” says the passenger. In another setting, his aggressive racism would be setting up some act of violence. Here, though, it leads to the porter turning to the salon boss and asking, “How soon can I start?”

    If you’re looking for subtlety or accuracy, you won’t find it in Self Made. If you like dramatic, made-for-TV storylines and speechifying, you could do worse. In an early scene, Breedlove is in an open market trying to interest the ladies of Indianapolis in her product. Just then a lanky, plain-looking young woman steps forward.

    “Wanted to work at the new hotel,” she says, “but they say I ain’t got the right look.” Sarah sees heads nodding throughout the crowd, and gets an idea.

    “You come by my salon — I do your hair for free,” she tells the woman, then addresses the other ladies. “Bet y’all are wondering why I would do something for nothing. Because I know how hard it is to care for our hair. I know what it’s like not have running water or products made for us. But most of all I know that if she look good, we all look good!”

    In that scene and many others, Spencer delivers the goods, just as she did in a factually challenged drama for Apple TV+ called (ironically) Truth Be Told. In Self Made, she is surrounded by first-rate talent, including Ejogo and Netflix and Drunk History favorite Tiffany Haddish as Breedlove’s daughter by her first husband. On the male side, Blair Underwood plays husband number two, aka Mr. Walker, and one of my all-time faves, Garrett Morris, is still kicking it as Mr. Walker’s cantankerous dad. Behind the camera, women of color are in key roles, including Asher and director DeMane Davis. Spencer and LeBron James — another hard-working businessman who made good — are among the executive producers.

    Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker premieres today on Netflix.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, Netflix, Blair Underwood , Carmen Ejogo, Garrett Morris, Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish