Review: Octavia Spencer plays first female ‘Self Made’ millionaire in Netflix miniseries

This image released by Netflix shows Octavia Spencer in a scene from “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” (Amanda Matlovich/Netflix via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Self Made' on Netflix

It has traded places with “Tiger King” this week as the top trending TV show on Netflix.

So if you’re stuck at home, check out “Self Made,” a four-episode miniseries starring Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire.

Based on the biography “On Her Own Ground” by A’Lelia Bundles, the series opens with poor washer woman Sarah Breedlove meeting hair-care product inventor Addie. While an early mentor, Addie insists nobody will buy beauty products from a woman who looks like Sarah, suggesting she’s not thin enough, pretty enough or fair-skinned enough.

So, Sarah starts her own company with her husband, C.J. Walker, under the brand name Madam C.J. Walker. The venture slowly gains success after endorsements by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. This causes jealousy from Addie, who does everything she can to undermine the business by stealing both her customers and employees.

The series is worth watching for Spencer’s performance alone, exuding both vulnerability and defiant entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a role that echoes her own rise from Oscar-winning actress of “The Help” (2011), “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017) to producer of “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Green Book” (2018).

She’s surrounded by Blair Underwood as emasculated husband C.J., Carmen Ejogo as conniving rival Addie, J. Alphonse Nicholson as opportunistic son-in-law John, Kevin Carroll as legal counsel Ransom and Garrett Morris as wise father-in-law Cleophus.

Most entertaining is Tiffany Haddish as daughter Lelia, providing comic relief with catchy zingers and a song number that she sings terribly off-key. The role also allows her to stretch her dramatic chops with a lesbian subplot, surely taboo at the turn of the century.

The time period is authentically rendered by production designer Britt Doughty (“Suits”), recreating 1908 Pittsburgh, 1910 Indianapolis and 1913 Harlem, all captured by cinematographer Kira Kelly, who shot Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” (2016).

The miniseries works the best in the first two episodes, “The Fight of the Century” and “Bootstraps,” thanks to the patient pacing of screenwriters Nicole Jefferson Asher and Janine Sherman Barrois. Both are directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”), who is quickly becoming our consistent champion of black female biopics with clever mirror reflections.

Her sensibility evolves beyond the “male gaze,” particularly a scene where a mortician tries to take advantage of Sarah. Lemmons cuts away from the attack, then shows brief flashback images to portray the encounter, whereas past male directors would have surely shown the perverse act. That’s storytelling progress of utmost sociological importance.

The only odd choice is the use of daydream sequences, first showing Sarah in a boxing ring, then on stage for a Broadway dance number. Such sequences worked well in “All That Jazz” (1979), because Roy Scheider played a theater director, but they seem forced for a hair-product guru, like a producer’s note suggesting to add unnecessary pizazz.

The fantasy sequences continue in Episode 3, “The Walker Girls,” as director DeMane Davis (“Queen Sugar”) intercuts pink-clad bicyclists riding in Sarah’s imagination. Be that as it may, Episode 3 is the most pivotal in the B-story relationship between Sarah and C.J.

After three strong episodes, “Self Made” feels destined to become an Emmy-worthy series, until things get hairy in Episode 4. All of a sudden, the storytelling becomes narratively rushed and tonally inconsistent, feeling like an episode from a completely different series.

While the first three episodes gradually show Walker’s business struggles, Episode 4 opens with a rapid montage where she becomes a millionaire and moves into a mansion next-door to John D. Rockefeller. Audiences might yell, “Hey! We wanted to see that part!”

The final episode also paints Sarah in a questionable manner as nefarious business practices come to light. It’s fine to give her flaws, but they must exist throughout. “Self Made” paints her as a saint for three full episodes then attempts a half-baked switch.

In the end, the story would have been better served by six or eight episodes rather than just four, but you’ll still be glad you watched to learn about an unsung historical figure.

Here’s to more hidden figures coming to light.

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