Sarah Breedlove, the woman known to posterity as Madam C.J. Walker, lived a remarkable life. Born in 1867 to formerly enslaved sharecroppers, she married at 14 to escape an abusive brother-in-law and was a widowed mother by 20. Her second husband turned out to be a bad egg. She started losing her hair. And only then did she discover Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair-growing cream, meet C.J. Walker—the ad salesman who would become her third spouse—and start building her own black women’s hair-care empire. She died, in 1919, one of the nation’s wealthiest female entrepreneurs.
Of all the unfortunate choices in the four-part drama Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, out March 20 on Netflix, the decision to focus on the last decade of her life is the most confusing. Instead of taking viewers through Walker’s extraordinary formative experiences, Octavia Spencer’s Sarah summarizes that story Wikipedia-style over flashbacks that open the first episode. What’s left is the business of building a business—which would be hard to dramatize under any circumstances but in this case suffers particularly from clumsy, cliché-ridden scripts.
Though “inspired by” a biography from Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, Self Made plays like a soap opera. Emasculated by his wife’s independence, C.J. (Blair Underwood) strays. As Sarah’s daughter Lelia, a woefully miscast Tiffany Haddish (who is only seven years Spencer’s junior) chafes in an unhappy marriage, her character’s quirkiness evidently meant to foreshadow the revelation that she’s gay. The villain is Sarah’s light-skinned savior turned rival (Carmen Ejogo), a fictionalized Malone who’s always scheming. The talented cast can’t overcome dialogue that can be painfully stiff (“Your impeccable reputation precedes you”) or anachronistic (“on the regular,” “lying-ass liar”) but is uniformly painful. Kasi Lemmons, of Harriet and the great Eve’s Bayou, directed two episodes, her camera lingering inexplicably on exaggerated reaction shots.
Normally, a show this bad would at least be amusing to watch. But when you consider the richness of the subject and the larger issues it raises—the politics of black hair, Walker’s anti-lynching work, sexism and colorism in the black community—its incompetence is just depressing.
Correction, March 18
The original version of this story misstated the number of episodes Kasi Lemmons directed. It is two, not three.