Review: Things get hairy in wayward Netflix drama 'Self Made'

Octavia Spencer stars as hair care mogul Madam C.J. Walker in four-part series that turns into soapy melodrama

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Good hair. Bad show. 

"Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker" is caught between honoring its subject, the hair-care mogul who was identified as the first female self-made millionaire in America, and making a soapy, sudsy television show around her life. The latter wins out, making this four-part limited series more "Empire" than "Hidden Figures." 

Octavia Spencer in "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker."

Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer plays Sarah Breedlove, who takes on the name Madam C.J. Walker as she enters the world of hair regrowth formula.

She begins in St. Louis in 1908, where she is introduced to the product by Addie (Carmen Ejogo), who has discovered the properties to fix hair texture for black women. But when Sarah offers to join Addie she is rejected due to her looks, which pushes Sarah to move to Indianapolis where she is determined to blaze her own trail. 

Sarah's brute force determination is the driving force of "Self Made," and creator Kasi Lemmons (last year's "Harriet"), who executive produces and directed the first two episodes, is fixed on testing her resolve by throwing all sorts of obstacles in her path.

She's dealt a philandering husband (Blair Underwood), a scheming son-in-law (J. Alphonse Nicholson), bad business deals and a rival — it's not soon before Addie follows her to Indianapolis — intent on taking her down. The dramatics take center stage and are served up as hammy melodrama; Spencer, who plays things straight, often seems like she's in another project altogether. 

Tiffany Haddish is miscast and in over her head as Sarah's daughter, Lelia — it doesn't help that Haddish is just seven years Spencer's junior — whose attraction to women becomes its own distraction from the main plotline.

"Self Made" touts Sarah as a hero but glosses over the very details that made her worthy of that title. As it pivots in its final moments to a celebration of the women she helped empower, a tacked-on storyline that was barely hinted at previously, it shows the chasm between what it set out to be and what it became. "Self Made" self destructs.


'Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker'


Rated TV-MA: Language, sexual situations

Running time: Approx. 190 minutes

On Netflix