Wondering what you should binge-watch next? Look no further than “Self Made,” the four-episode limited series on Netflix that tells the creative biographical story of badass Madam C.J. Walker. Walker was one of the first millionaires, making her money as a pioneer in black hair care. Her story is brought to life by one of our favorite actresses, Octavia Spencer. And if you need more reasons to watch, some of her co-stars are Tiffany Haddish (who plays Walker’s daughter) and Blair Underwood (Walker’s second husband).
The episodes are about an hour long each and beautifully weave (pun intended) themes of the matriarchy, race, marriage, sisterhood, and entrepreneurialism. The first episode, The Fight of the Century, opens with a powerful and compelling message. “Hair is beauty. Hair is emotion. Hair is our heritage. Hair tells us who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.” It’s 1908 in St. Louis, and we see Madam Walker is trying to sell hair grower cream in an open market.
In the first episode, a lot happens. We learn of Madam Walker’s humble beginnings as a washer woman. She’s washing laundry for a bi-racial woman named Addie in exchange for hair treatments. Addie smugly tells Madam Walker, then known as Sarah, that, “Colored women will do anything to look like me, even if they know they can’t.” From the very beginning, viewers sense a building rivalry between the two women.
Sarah is discontent with her life. Her hair is growing back with Addie’s cream after her experiencing hair loss during her tumultuous first marriage. It’s during her time under Addie’s reign that Sarah decides she’s sick and tired of being controlled by others. Sarah tells women in the market her story. She was orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen, pregnant at fifteen, and widowed by twenty. In essence, she knows hardship well.
When her hair began to grow back, so did her confidence. That’s when she began cultivating a new life and her own hair product line. Hair is so much more than “just” hair, a cultural belief that rings true in the black community to this day.
The plot quickly thickens. Sarah, her husband, her adult daughter, and her daughter’s new (and irresponsible) husband move to Indianapolis. When Addie learns of Sarah’s success, she appears, snaking her way into Sarah’s new community and trying to steal her customers. When tragedy strikes, Sarah claims her new name, Madam C.J. Walker, and forges a new path for her company and her family.
Each of the next three episodes offers viewers plenty of surprises, sweet moments, and suspense. After the first episode, I was wondering if Sarah would prevail with all the odds stacked against her. Who would stay faithful to Madam Walker, and who would betray her? Is Addie truly evil, or is she misunderstood?
Spencer’s portrayal of Madam Walker is completely captivating—and Blair Underwood agrees. He shared on Instagram, “You know you are working with a master when all you have to do is show up and respond to the spirit, heart and passion that she so effortlessly exudes.” Spencer is one of the best actresses of our time, appearing in incredible films such as The Help, Hidden Figures, Instant Family, and The Shack. She’s won multiple awards including an Oscar and a Golden Globe. She’s set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year.
Spencer is basically a fairy godmother. Co-star Carmen Jogo, who plays Walker’s nemesis Addie, confessed on Instagram that Spencer, like her character Walker, is a fighter. Jogo shared a photo from the show featuring herself and Spencer with the caption, “I only recently discovered that behind the scenes she had worked hard to guarantee equal pay for the women on the show, including me. Power in the right hands is a blessing to us all.”
It seems quite appropriate that Netflix chose to drop “Self Made” during Women’s History Month, reminding all of us that women are powerful and our stories deserve to be told. Madam Walker was a history-maker and world-changer, a revolutionary who knew that black women matter. Her legacy lives on to this day.
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