“Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” is a historical retelling of the life of Sarah Walker, (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”) a washerwoman who became the first female self-made millionaire during the Gilded Age. The story follows Sarah as she escapes the condescending glare of the light-skinned, beautiful Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo, “Selma”) and begins to sell her own hair-growth product made specifically for Black women.Working against the patriarchy, Eurocentric beauty standards and blunt racism, Walker single-handedly turns her spite into a massive enterprise.
The themes the show purports are self-evident and wholly American. With hard work and determination, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. While the “American Dream” comprises the backbone of the show, the narrative’s inclusion of other tangential themes reveal barriers to the achievement of the “American Dream” that often go unmentioned. In fact, the show manages to efficiently do the impossible — balance colorism, racism and feminism in an efficient and nuanced way.
In “Self-Made,” no “-ism” supersedes another. Race doesn’t supersede the importance of gender, nor does gender supersede color. Instead, the characters’ alliances shift to push back against the oppressive force of the moment. For example, while Addie Munroe and Sarah Walker are sworn rivals due to their skin color differences, Addie signals her support for Walker as she fights for a chance to speak at a male-dominated convention. Despite their conflict, both recognize the need for female solidarity. While the show focuses on the fascinating intersections of Walker’s gender and race struggle, it fails to explore another equally important aspect of Walker’s character: class.
We live in a peculiar time. On one hand, the myth of the American Dream is crumbling in front of our eyes. On the other hand, society has become more receptive to the idea that positions of power should be occupied by people who aren’t white males. Should we dismantle power structures or simply reoccupy them with different faces? “Self-Made” obviously supports the latter. Central aspects to Walker’s life, such as her position as a working class washerwoman are only mentioned as a tool to juxtapose her past with her present.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this dissonance is one of the final scenes of the show. In the final chapter of “Self-Made,” Walker’s employees protest the deal she made in the industry that would jeopardize their jobs. One might expect the show to focus on this dilemma. Perhaps Walker would give a passionate speech where she would recount her working-class past, and thus her sympathy towards her workers. Perhaps (more realistically) she would fire her workers, and the show would focus on aspects of her personality that were less glamorous. Instead the show does neither. Walker simply says she won’t go through with the deal, despite the fact that every aspect of her character shows she will break down every barrier to her success. This scene speaks for a particular purpose of the show. Despite the title, “Self-Made” isn’t truly about the life of the human being Sarah Walker. It’s about the idea of Madam CJ Walker, a larger-than-life figure, living proof that all barriers can, and should, be shattered.
Ultimately, “Self-Made” is a very empowering show. The central character’s story is remarkable and worth exploring. Like other “empowering” media, it feels good to watch. It feels good to watch someone overcome overwhelming odds. It feels good to beat back racism, sexism and colorism. It feels good to be empowered, just don’t think about what you can do with that power.