Netflix’s Self Made gives us an all-too-brief, dramatized look at the life of Sarah Breedlove, more widely known as hair care magnate Madam C.J. Walker. Though Walker’s journey from cotton fields to cosmetic empire is endlessly fascinating, the show is just a four-episode miniseries, meaning Self Made will not return for a Season 2. While we sadly won’t get to see more of Octavia Spencer’s boldly ambitious Madam Walker, there’s the hope that if Self Made does well, it will encourage an entirely new generation of viewers to learn more about the remarkable woman who pioneered the modern cosmetics industry.
Self Made is based on On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, written by Walker’s own great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. For those fascinated by Self Made‘s story, Bundles book is the best source for further information about Walker, her family, and her legacy. Bundles dives much deeper into Walker’s family tree before the events of Self Made, for example, and explains how Walker’s daughter Lelia took over the business after her passing. You also get more information about Madam Walker’s relationship with C.J. Walker, and her extensive philanthropy and social justice advocacy that made her such a respected figure in the black community.
And if Self Made feels too brief to encapsulate Walker’s extraordinary story, it’s likely because Netflix only offered the creative team a few episodes.
Directors Kasi Lemmons and DeMane Davis, alongside writer Nicole Asher, brought Self Made to life, and in a Vibe interview Lemmons hinted that Self Made was meant to be much longer. "When Nicole [Jefferson Asher] and I sold the project to Netflix, I think we had 10 episodes in mind. We felt that there was enough material to keep it going," she explained. It appears that Netflix turned down that offer though, so Lemmons and the team had to "showcase what was important." Lemmons decided that out of all the aspects of Walker’s life, "the family story was fundamental," and that it played "a big part of her life."
Though Self Made ultimately takes some liberties with portraying Walker’s family life and personal dramas, it’s still an interesting look at how she became the richest black woman of her time. On Her Ground is always there to check out afterwards as a resource, and Walker was also the focus of a 1987 documentary called Two Dollars and a Dream by Stanley Nelson, the grandson of Ransom. Self Made may be short, but Walker’s accomplishments are long, and it’s a legacy worth diving into.
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