Five Takeaways From Episode One of Netflix's ‘Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker’
March 23, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft better stories.
There’s no better moment to find a new series to binge than during the current quarantine. Netflix has brought a forgotten corner of history to life with Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Released last Friday, this limited series is at once a story of capitalism and African American pride, wrapped together in a tight, four-episode package.
Retelling the final decade of Sarah Breedlove (who took on the more glamorous moniker of Madam C.J. Walker), Self-Made is the story of America’s first self-made, female millionaire of African American descent (though, to be fair, that prestigious title has been called into question in recent years. Read about it here). And there’s plenty for a screenwriter to draw from in the pilot episode.
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
Find a new place and time.
Even though it’s set in the early 1900s, Self-Made feels fresh. Can you recall another historical drama about a non-slave, African American woman building a million-dollar empire around hair care products in pre-WWI mid-western America? You can’t. Self-Made knocks it out of the park with an electric, untapped premise based on a pioneering woman. It’s an inspiring story set against a time period we rarely see, never mind through the eyes of African American entrepreneurial spirit. The takeaway here is that a new spin on setting and fresh character types already put you leaps and bounds ahead of your writing competition. The premise alone gives your audience pause and asks all sorts of questions we have to know the answer to—like what kind of woman could build a haircare empire in 1910? Self-Made may be a classic rags-to-riches story (washerwoman-turned-business-tycoon), but it keeps things interesting and unique by couching this well-worn concept within the burgeoning African American middle class and pits our heroine not against a villainous white man, but a mixed-race competitor in fellow hair care expert, Addie Munroe. Therefore, Self-Made has a fresh setting, a fresh villain, and a fresh way of packaging old tropes. It’s a fascinating chapter of US history and gives the entire series a new and exciting prism to examine our own world through: What’s changed, what hasn’t, and how some dreams never die.
Pile on the obstacles, not the resolutions.
A series (mini or otherwise), does not live by its central conflict alone. Television is a fabulous medium to explore multiple storylines, and even better, you don’t resolve all of your conflicts in the pilot. Think of it as the foundation of a house. The problems you establish in your pilot episode are what keep us coming back for more. It might seem obvious, but a good pilot should be overflowing with conflict and tension, of unanswered questions, and unresolved issues. Self-Made revels in conflict, big and small. Our heroine must struggle with being “too” African American. She’s deemed unfit to sell the hair care products of her hero—the beautiful, mixed race Addie Munro. All the while, she struggles with her washerwoman past. C.J. Walker’s also got a deadbeat son-in-law. She doesn’t even seem to notice the strained financial relationship with her latest husband. Then, there’s a huge factory fire. Plus, the inherent racism of America in 1910. Overwhelmed yet? All of these obstacles are set up before we even dive into the challenges and pitfalls of being a capitalist-loving woman in an era when women didn’t own many—wait, that should read any—businesses. We get a taste of it all in the first episode, and none of the conflicts get resolved.
Stylized choices: exciting or distracting?
Stylized storytelling choices are things like imaginary characters or events, dream sequences, internal monologues, and fourth wall breaks. The list is limitless. The good thing about stylized choices is that they give a show its tone and unique flair (think: Fleabag, This is Us and 30 Rock all use some of the techniques employed in Self-Made). Its pilot is anchored in a fantasy boxing match between Sarah and her business foe, Addie Munro. The episode continually flashes back to the boxing match to land the thematic “punch” that business is a fight, and you have to be the best fighter to survive. Just to be clear, C.J. Walker was not a professional boxer—this is a stylistic choice. Just like episode two uses dancing girls and showtunes as its anchor. This choice definitely allows Self-Made to stand out in a crowded television market.
Here’s the downside to wild, stylized swings with your story: they draw your audience out of the suspension of disbelief to remind us we’re in a story. When a writer does their job well, we are whipped into a new world and invested in the characters as if they were us. Yes, on some level, we know it’s fake (after all, we’re reading a script or sitting in front of our screens), but we let go of that logical hiccup to allow the story to take us away. When you rip us out of your carefully crafted “reality” of your story (whether through a fourth wall break or a fantasy sequence), you remind us that, “hey, in case you forgot, folks, this isn’t real.” It’s a risky move and will turn off some audience members, even if they can’t pinpoint what exactly they’re not connecting with. Stylized choices can elevate or detract from material, so make sure they’re adding to the narrative and not just telling us something we already know in a flashy, genre-bending style. The story comes first, the bells and whistles come second.
Start your story as late as you can.
There’s an old rule for writing scenes: start late, end early. But the same applies to when your entire story begins. Self-Made actually only deals with the final ten years of C.J. Walker’s life. We meet her just as she’s about to begin building her hair care empire. She’s got her hair back, but dreams of something more. The writers wisely use plenty of tools to fill in the blanks on C.J. Walker’s backstory: quick flashbacks, narration, asides, inserts, cutaways, conversations between characters. By starting late and using these storytelling tools to weave in the past, we’re able to glean only what we need to understand about the character’s backstory. A beginning writer would’ve started with our heroine as a young girl, an orphan at seven—but that’s not what this story is about. This is about her empire, and her empire really didn’t begin until she went to war with Addie Munroe. A character’s backstory is important, but it’s not more important than the plot you’re telling now.
Adapting history: Decisions, decisions.
Adapting history for the screen isn’t easy. Sure, the source material can provide you with events, characters and settings that give you an amazing foundation. But most of adapting historical figures and events is not about what to include, but about what to leave out. You’re dealing with whole time periods and entire lives that you must condense down to a few hours on screen. So, do your research. Then, decide your focus. You’re going to be cutting a lot when telling a true story, and you need to know what’s most important to tell, and what you can leave off the page. In Self-Made, the writers and showrunners had to leave massive portions of C.J. Walker’s life out, or, at best, glaze over it for context. We only hear about being abandoned at age seven, growing up the daughter of emancipated slaves. A mere flashback tells us the story of abusive family members, of being married at fourteen. The writers play fast and loose with her timeline (in real life much of this pilot episode actually took place in Denver, Colorado, not Indianapolis). All of that is before we even get to the fact that C.J. Walker probably did steal her recipe from Annie Malone (who was changed to Addie Munroe for the series, and was not nearly as villainous as you think. Read the other side of the story here). In defense of Self-Made, writers have to make these tough decisions; they have to double down on a point of view to tell a compelling story. The truth has to be bent, just be careful not to bend it too much so that you can still say “inspired by” or “based on a true story”. Trust me, if you get lucky enough to have people be interested in your “true story” and it turns out you’re lying about the “true” part, you’ll have lost face as a screenwriter and storyteller. You can always write another script, but rebuilding your reputation as a writer is much harder.
FINAL TAKEAWAY: Fresh settings and characters elevate Self-Made. The historical drama delivers knockout performances and a stylized take on the history of hair style, making this not just a good story, but an important one.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.