In posting this opinion piece on Netflix's miniseries: 'Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,' I thought it would also be beneficial to use as her biography.
Think, Opinion, Analysis, Essays
March 19, 2020
Netflix's 'Self Made' is not inspired enough by Madame C.J. Walker to avoid stereotypes. The series also dishonors Annie Malone by portraying her as a colorist schemer. It does the same to Walker by emphasizing her insecurities instead of her pride.
The series, which came out Friday, March 20, 2020, is based on the 2002 biography "On Her Own" by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles and stars Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as one of the nation's first self-made millionaires. Among the ten executive producers that include Spencer, and NBA star LeBron James. Despite many powerful people behind the film, "Self Made" sensationalizes the life of Walker in petty, familiar ways that seem designed to ramp up drama by hewing to ugly stereotypes about black women -- a curious choice, since she experienced plenty of interesting and unexpected drama in her fifty-one years.
Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Walker was the first person in her family not born into slavery.
She was orphaned as a small child and then forced to live with her older sister and abusive brother-in-law, a predicament she fled by getting married as a teen. That marriage proved to be just a temporary escape, as her husband died a few years after their nuptials, leaving Walker not only a widow but a single mother too.
The miniseries omits over much of Walker's backstory, thereby giving the impression that she was simply a striving capitalist instead of a woman who transcended abject poverty (based on gender and race) in search of a life for her daughter that didn't involve the backbreaking labor of being a washerwoman.
The real Walker was a businesswoman, yes but she was also a philanthropist who made it clear that her immense wealth would serve to uplift her race, as well as a political activist who campaigned against lynching, sued an Indianapolis movie theater for charging blacks more for admission than whites and was spied on by the FBI. As one of the nation's richest women black or white at a time when women's rights to own property at all varied by state and marital status, Walker helped her female sales agents earn significantly more money than they would have as domestic workers and encouraged them, too, to take up political causes.
The series links Walker's hair care business, and thus her wealth, to her purported insecurity about being a dark-skinned black woman with kinky hair. In fact, Walker emphasized that she was proud to be a black woman and shot down the misconception that her products, such as the Wonderful Hair Grower, straightened hair or that she intended to make black women look "whiter." During a time when many hair care ads featured white or nearly white models, Walker featured herself and other brown-skinned women on her products.
Beyond that, her business rival in the series, Addie Munroe (played by Carmen Ejogo), is a "light, bright" biracial woman with the wavy tresses historically called "good hair" in the black community.
Addie, though is loosely based on Walker's real life business rival, Annie Malone with some glaring differences that lean into stereotypes both about colorism and black female rival. Unlike "Munroe," Malone was a dark-skinned black woman, as Walker was.
Malone ultimately enjoyed even greater financial success than Walker.
"Self Made's" emphasis on colorism has even prompted Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer to speak out. A'Lelia Bundles told the Indianapolis Monthly that she disliked the series' portrayal of Walker and Malone's interactions. "I know Hollywood narratives exaggerate reality to create conflict and drama, but I was disappointed that the script defaulted to Madam Walker's and Annie Malone cursing and fighting each other," she said. "It felt like a clichéd way to show their competition with each other."
Hair and beauty are undoubtedly political, and Walker knew as much, but "Self Made" glosses over how neely freed African Americans managed their appearance in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Investing in how one looked was a means to demonstrate black equality and to exhibit racial pride after generations of subjugation.
"Self Made" cheapens this history, using the idea of black hair, rather than even its reality, as fodder for a tawdry storyline about two businesswomen who often behave more like cartoons than real people.
Both Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone deserve better.
Nadra Nittle is a senior reporter for Civil Eats. She was formerly a staff writer for Vox and has freelanced for a number of publications, including The Guardian, Refinery29 and Business Insider.
Black Heritage USPS US Postal Service No.3181 (1998)