Sarah Breedlove (Octavia Spencer) is a laundress in late 19th century Louisiana in America. Earning in pennies, she is struggling to make ends meet for herself and her daughter Lelia (Tiffany Haddish). Like most black women during that time, Sarah too, is considered unattractive and neglected by the beauty industry which catered mostly to white women. In the face of racial discrimination and turmoil in her personal life, Sarah becomes determined to do something big.
The limited series "Self-made: Inspired by the life of Madam CJ Walker" on Netflix depicts Sarah's journey to becoming the first African-American female millionaire and owner of Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company. Not only did she succeed in developing and marketing her own chain of beauty products, she also taught the basics of entrepreneurship to many black women and helped them have jobs.
Watch the trailer of "Self-made: Inspired by the life of Madam CJ Walker" here
The opening scene shows Sarah hunching over a washing tub and vigorously scrubbing clothes, the strain draining her emotionally and physically. We see how poverty and an absent, abusive husband makes things worse for her. She is also suffering from partial hair loss, a problem common among black women who did not have access to hair products or running water to have proper washes.
At a low point in her life, she meets Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo), who helps to regrow her hair with a hair balm. This helps Sarah regain her confidence, and she wants to sell the balm to help others. By this time, she is happily remarried to CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), a newspaper advertisement agent.
Addie sharply objects to it, because she thinks Sarah looks more befitting as a washerwoman ("straight out of a plantation") and not a beauty product seller.
The rejection motivates Sarah to make her own hair product and she begins to market it by herself. Perhaps many of the modern marketing techniques we see these days were inspired by the ones she applies to popularise her brand. With time, she builds an empire with her title of Madam CJ Walker and generates wealth beyond imagination.
Octavia Spencer brilliantly portrays the resilient Madam CJ Walker and delivers her dialogues with the right amount of emotions. She very rarely strays from the character, and it is evident that she has put in tremendous efforts in building it. But I could not help but think of her similar roles in The Help, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water. It is high time that people start offering her diverse roles.
Blaire Underwood gives a solid performance as the husband, CJ Walker. At times, his gestures reminded me of a slightly younger Denzel Washington.
A pleasant surprise in the series was CJ Walker's father Cleophus, played by Garrett Morris. Remember Earl from "Two Broke Girls"? That is him. Although he plays a small role, Garrett was a like a breath of fresh air.
Watching Tiffany Haddish as Lelia made me realise how she is not yet prepared for serious acting. I guess she was given this role based on her current popularity, but nobody likes to watch a quiet, demure Tiffany on-screen. We all love her for her infectious laugh and quirky humour.
As the title suggests, the series is a one woman show and although the supporting actors gave good performances, Octavia was the real jewel throughout. Released on March 20, the series has four episodes, all of which are available for streaming on Netflix.