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Octavia Spencer stars in uplifting 'Self Made'

Posted 3/20/20

By Kevin McDonough

Hair is powerful. Changes in hairstyles have presaged revolutions and rebellions. And efforts to repress hair "statements" have always been the hallmark of authority. Just recently, a high school student was forced to cut his …

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Octavia Spencer stars in uplifting 'Self Made'

Posted

By Kevin McDonough

Hair is powerful. Changes in hairstyles have presaged revolutions and rebellions. And efforts to repress hair "statements" have always been the hallmark of authority. Just recently, a high school student was forced to cut his hair before a wrestling match in New Jersey, an event that sparked debates about culture, race, authority and power.

And today, Netflix begins streaming "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker," a four-part series based on the real life of a black woman (Octavia Spencer) who became America's first female self-made millionaire by selling haircare and skincare products to black women in the early part of the 20th century.

Born into poverty two years after the end of the Civil War, Walker grew up toiling in the fields and taking in laundry, a difficult life that left her nearly bald. After her husband returns from jail to treat her like a dog, she encounters Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo), a glamorous hair entrepreneur who promises to care for Walker's scalp in exchange for laundry services. Hair restored, Walker becomes an advocate for Munroe's services. But when Walker asks to join Munroe's sales team, Munroe laughs her off, dismissing her as too ugly and dark to be an ambassador for beauty.

This inspires Walker to concoct products of her own and launch a business that would soon eclipse Munroe's. Their rivalry points up divisions in the community between light- and dark-skinned people. The fight over skin color is sharply double-edged. When Munroe touts the refinement of her pale assistants, Walker acidly retorts that their "desirable" shade simply means that one of their enslaved grandmothers had been raped.

The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow loom in the background, and Walker's business begins thriving just as Jack Johnson begins challenging white supremacy in the boxing ring. But for the most part, "Self Made" takes place almost entirely within a black world. There are no white villains or saviors. Simply put: This isn't about white people at all. Walker's struggles are with other black men and women, and her near-evangelical appeal is to black women like herself who have been castigated as "too dark to shine."

"Self Made" is as odd and uneven as it is appealing and uplifting. There are strange interstitial scenes of Walker in a boxing ring, underscoring the battle of her existence. Bright, colorful depictions of early 20th-century life that often seem more suited to a stage musical are accompanied by 21st-century anthems. These effects keep viewers off balance. Not unlike Sofia Coppola's new-wave cinematic take on "Marie Antoinette," the series frequently plays with the traditional biopic, even at the expense of seeming jarring and peculiar.

Then there is the casting of Tiffany Haddish as Walker's daughter, Lelia, a strident woman who seems capable of doing or saying the unexpected. Combined with Spencer, the two women bring a vibrancy to a compelling story very much of the rags-to-riches variety.

TONIGHT'S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

• On "The Blacklist" (NBC, TV-14): forging ahead (8 p.m.), desert island plans (9 p.m.).

• Frank and Jamie beg to differ on "Blue Bloods" (10 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).

SERIES NOTES

A killer returns on "MacGyver" (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) * Mobsters become targets on "Hawaii Five-0" (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) * "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (CW, r): Elizabeth Gillies (9 p.m., TV-PG), Heather Anne Campbell (9:30 p.m., TV-14).

LATE NIGHT

Will Ferrell is on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" (11:35 p.m., CBS, r) * Jimmy Fallon welcomes BTS on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC, r) * Ben Affleck, Justina Machado and Victoria Monet are on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (12:05 p.m., ABC, r) * Nicolle Wallace, Keke Palmer, Steve Farrone and Daymond John visit "Late Night With Seth Meyers" (12:35 a.m., NBC, r) * Justin Bieber, Lucy Hale, Scott Bakula and Wajatta on "The Late Late Show With James Corden" (12:35 a.m., CBS, r).

© 2020, United Feature Syndicate