‘Self Made’: A good story done poorly

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While “Tiger King” may have stolen the spotlight from other interesting Netflix shows these past few weeks, one of these other shows, although not sensationalized or over-the-top, depicts an inspiring story that also deserves a watch. 

“Self Made” tries to capture the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), who became America’s first self-made female millionaire by making and selling hair care products and cosmetics marketed toward black women. The four-part series is based on the book “On Her Own Ground,” a biography of Walker written by her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. Unlike the book, the show does not portray all of Walker’s life, instead choosing to focus on her later years and the inception and growth of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. 

The series benefits immensely from Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Walker but could have done better in a few other regards. 

The show mainly suffers from poor dialogue. Some turns of phrase feel quite clumsy and unsubtle. The childish and awkward line “You really think you can compete with me?” spoken by Addie Munroe (Walker’s main fictionalized rival) to Walker was one example that stuck out within just the first 15 minutes of the first episode. This immature dialogue limits the seriousness of the show. 

On the brighter side, the show had some good lessons for young women then and now. For example, at one point, Walker tells her daughter Lelia that she should always make her own money and not depend on her husband — or any man for that matter. As Walker experienced in her own life, financial independence affords a person the means to care for themselves and the power to direct their own life. It was nice to see the Walker of “Self Made” try to instill this lesson in her daughter, who was occasionally portrayed as naive or a little too carefree in the first episode.

The show made an interesting choice to use modern pop and hip hop music in the background at times. I wasn’t sure whether I liked this decision or not, since the rest of the show was really rooted in the historical time period of Walker’s life. On the other hand, this music felt empowering when songs like “Seven Nation Army” played behind Walker as she started growing her business. This choice helped to bring a story from the early 20th century to 2020 and keep it relevant. 

In another effective move, the series takes a look at colorism: Addie Munroe is depicted with lighter skin and longer, straighter hair than Walker and denies Walker a job as a salesperson essentially because she doesn’t have “the right look.” Munroe wants her customers to think that by using her products they’ll look like her: lighter-skinned and with straighter hair. That moment is an interesting comment on colorism and, within the narrative, spurs Walker to take action and start her own business. 

Although the show has its stumblings, it has finally brought some modern exposure to the life of Madam C. J. Walker. While it could have been done better, “Self Made” affords us a small glimpse at the passion and dedication of America’s first self-made female millionaire. 

Rating: 3/5

Thumbnail photo courtesy of imdb.com

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Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu

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