‘Self Made’ TV Review: Octavia Spencer Can’t Save Uneven Miniseries
The exceptional and eccentric life of Madam C.J. Walker — America’s first female self-made millionaire — has long been one of the most egregiously untapped stories in Hollywood. Thanks to a team of producers including LeBron James and star Octavia Spencer, Walker’s story has finally made it to audiences the world over.
If only the final product was worthy of its subject matter. Based on A’Lelia Bundles‘s celebrated biography of Walker, Self Made tracks the entrepreneur’s serpentine journey through cold calls, cheating husbands and fictionalized encounters with some of the period’s most notable celebrities. Elements of the series seem to indicate its desire to adopt a kind of punk attitude — upbeat hip-hop tracks are regularly interpolated and some curious dream sequences featuring Walker as a boxer certainly create a strong sense of disruption.
Unfortunately, the series plays it safe in all of the areas that really count. The plotting is disappointingly simple – every “surprise” is red-flagged well in advance. The characters suffer as well, with each eventually becoming some sort of essentialized stereotype.
Spencer, to her credit, does a lot of great work with the material she’s given. Too often consigned to one-note roles, her Walker’s capitalistic monomania is combined with enough degrees of self-doubt and black pride to make her an ever-endearing figure. Tiffany Haddish plays Walker’s adult daughter who, struggling with her sexuality, lurches towards caricature in nearly every scene. Blair Underwood, playing C.J. Walker, fares a bit better — while much of the series sees him compelling struggling with the status of his masculinity, this is eventually sidelined in favor of bland neediness.
Carmen Ejogo has the toughest job of all, playing Addie, Walker’s arch-nemesis. The series is dispiritingly unfair to Addie; she seems to make the most predictably evil decision at each and every turn with little investigation into her background or motivations. Ejogo sells the role well — it’s just a role she shouldn’t have to be selling at all.
Kasi Lemmons directs the series’s first two episodes while DeMane Davis takes the back half, though the staid tone of it all allows for little distinction between the two. The series’s brief moments of expressionism are so off-balance and poorly executed that they come off as more of a joke than anything else. The editing is the worst offender here, with the courageous cuts occurring at truly puzzling moments and all others slipping rather quietly into the “functional” category.
Most surprising of all is the poor production quality — that a Netflix series with such big names behind it would be suffering from balsa wood-looking sets and far too few extras in key moments is genuinely shocking. Sometimes it can be difficult to know if the failures of Self Made rest with its budget or its talent — at any rate, the Madam deserved much better.