These days when we hear about a biopic being made of a historical Black figure, the response is often a complex mix of both interest and concern. Some stories don’t benefit from the pomp and circumstance that Hollywood tends to add in order to sell the general public on the story. But Netflix’s new Self Made, which chronicles the life of hair industry mogul Madam C.J. Walker is a complete departure from any other biopic you’ve seen recently.
The series follows the journey of Madam Walker’s hair care empire through her personal relationships, including her relationship with herself and the struggles she dealt with as a Black woman born just two years after emancipation. Madam Walker is seen as a hard worker and someone who perseveres. No surprise there. Madam Walker is shown as the backbone of her family and a strong empowered woman. That’s typical. Madam Walker literally gets into a boxing ring with a competitor and goes blow for blow. Say what now?
“Madam C.J. Walker’s story really struck me as one of a woman who was a visionary, who was ahead of her time. And it really needed to be told in a way that reflected that,” said series co-executive producer Nicole Jefferson Asher. “Not just for the sake of doing that, but to really get us deeper into her imagination, and on another level, to show what was special about her, what made her unique and what enabled her to do what no one had done before. This was a woman who didn’t go to school. She had to teach herself to read. And she ended up becoming a millionaire in her lifetime. So that takes a tremendous imagination. And so we wanted to use interstitials, fantasy elements, magic realism, all of these things to be able to put the viewer in her mind.”
The series is based on the book On Her Own Ground by Walker’s great-granddaughter and historian A’Lelia Bundles. This adaptation to the small screen is the work of an all Black and all women-led team. The imagery in the series is outstanding, including the hairstyles worn by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer, who plays Walker, and the portraits of women from 1910 draped in beautiful Black hairstyles of the decade.
Black leaders and trailblazers’ stories are told in 2020 from a modern gaze. It’s easy to forget just how enterprising they were back in the early 1900s. These days we’re inundated with so much content, and stories like Madam Walker’s have to compete with shows like Black Mirror and Stranger Things. So to bring in extremely contemporary elements to tell this story is smart and refreshing. It puts a 2020 viewer in a different state of mind to be able to relate.
The four part series Self Made debuts on Netflix on March 20. It’s an unexpected wild ride I suggest everyone take.