Netflix’s Self Made: a celebration of Madam CJ Walker

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Netflix has just put out its newest limited series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker. The series follows Sarah Walker, an African-American woman from St. Louis, Missouri, USA and her journey to becoming the first female millionaire in America. In addition to the subject matter being a tale of an early feminist, much of the production team, including the writers and directors are black women.

This four-episode mini-series goes through the life of Sarah Walker, as she went from rags to riches in just a decade. The show is based on the book On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great great-granddaughter. However, the show strays from historical accuracy at many points to focus on creating a more dramatic show for audiences to view. This is not to say that it takes away from her accomplishments or even exemplifies what she managed to do. The choices to diverge are taken regarding secondary life events.

The show is revolutionary as it combines modern aspects of African-American culture, such as rap and hip hop music, with its history to create a synthesized representation of heritage and strength in the community

In addition to straying from the precise history of this remarkable figure, the creators choose to intersperse the narrative of the show with dream sequences that don’t always fit in with the time frame of the story. However, these moments personalise Sarah and her battle not just for gender, but racial equality.

In four short episodes, the show covers gender and racial inequality, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and LGBT+ topics. While, at times, it may like the viewer is being torpedoed with social justice issues, I do feel that each of these issues adds value to the narrative. I would have appreciated a higher level of sustained buildup between sections; four episodes seemed too little.

The show is revolutionary as it combines modern aspects of African-American culture, such as rap and hip hop music, with its history to create a synthesized representation of heritage and strength in the community. Octavia Spencer and the rest of the cast gave an outstanding performance that was dynamic and strong. The plot focuses on the strength of women in the community. The writers do an amazing job of creating dynamic female characters who focus on their own goals.

However, it does portray the important gender dynamics involved, that hold special significance in the age of the MeToo movement, where women are speaking out against men silencing women. Madam CJ Walker was not just important because she was the first woman, to make a million dollars on her own, and a black woman at that. She created an industry which was for women, built by women and supported women. She, not only ‘elevated’ her race, but the women in it. It’s important to note that while this was the era of women’s suffrage movements, African American women were kept out of the conversation by both white women and African American men. They saw it as too much progress; Sarah Walker disagreed. 

This redefining historical drama is designed by and for the African American community, especially its women. Madam CJ Walker is a real example of the determination paying off, quite literally. Even if you watch the mini-series, I recommend researching her further to see how amazing she was without the ornamentation of this creative retelling of her life.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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