A story of fortune and fame in the most unlikely of circumstances — essentially the American dream — is the premise of the Netflix original limited series “Self Made.”
The historical biopic tells the tale of Madam CJ Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire. Her story is remarkable for several reasons, but mostly due to the many facets of adversity she faced being an African American woman in the early 1900s with an entrepreneurial dream.
Walker was born in 1867, just after slavery was abolished in America, and although she was born free, blacks still were greatly suffering from oppression and segregation. Walker endured many hardships in her early life. She was orphaned at the age of 7 and started working as a servant. She was married at 14 and had one daughter with her first husband who died when the girl was 2 years old.
Her second marriage was unsuccessful, and during this time Walker began losing her hair from stress and poor living conditions. One day a door-to-door saleslady turned Walker’s life around by introducing her to a miracle hair-growing cure.
Her hair came back and she found happiness again, marrying Charles Joseph Walker, whose name she took, in 1906. Walker had much bigger aspirations than being a wash lady, and with her newfound confidence she decided to start her own hair-care line designed for black women.
Octavia Spencer plays Madam Walker, which is enough reason to check out the series in itself. Spencer is the perfect actress to capture Walker’s tenacity, as she can ward off naysayers with one determined cast of her big brown eyes, pursed lips and tilted head.
And Walker had plenty of people trying to suppress her ambition. She came into a nasty competition with the woman who had first introduced her to the magical hair grower. She faced numerous doubters who would not invest in a company for women’s cosmetics. And even her husband tried to stifle her business’ growth because of his own insecurities as she became the primary breadwinner for the family.
Along with the obvious racial and gender obstacles she hurdled, the story also highlights the age-old dilemma, whether family or work comes first. Typically, this is depicted as the man’s problem in films, but Walker was no ordinary woman. And the road to building her empire definitely took its toll on her personal life. There is no glory without sacrifice.
Spencer is backed by costar Tiffany Haddish as Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia. Theirs is one of the relationships which faltered at times. A’Lelia did not quite fit into her mother’s plan as the heir to her empire and she, too, faces challenges in her personal life.
“Self Made” is an inspiring feature of female leadership and an interesting piece of history. Many probably have heard her name, but may not be that familiar with her story, including myself. But in just four hours, I was enlightened by Walker’s determination that led her to the top, securing a spot next to the Rockefellers. She achieved the wealth she so desired while uplifting women of color by helping them find their beauty.
Hers is a story worth telling, and this inspired version is worth a watch as well.