Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker tells the inspiring and touching true story of one of America’s most revolutionary women.
Starring Oscar-winning The Help actress Octavia Spencer as its titular heroine, the Netflix show traces Madam’s journey as she develops and markets a line of cosmetics and hair care products but faces trials and tribulations along the way, including racism and sexism on multiple fronts.
Born December 23, 1867, in Delta, Louisiana, Sarah Breedlove was one of six siblings but was the first child born to her parents that lived her life in freedom, with her older siblings previously being brought up in slavery.
After being orphaned at the age of 7, Sarah went to live in Lousiana with her older sister Louvenia and her husband Jesse Powell.
Working as a domestic servant from the age of 10, Sarah worked hard to survive in her difficult circumstances.
Marrying at the age of 14 to Moses Williams, Sarah was widowed at the age of 20 and she and her daughter A’Leila travelled to St. Louis to live near Sarah’s brothers.
The series picks up during her troubled marriage to second husband John Davis, which gradually fell apart and led to Sarah leaving him.
In 1904, Sarah began working as a commission agent for African-American hair-care entrepreneur and owner of the Poro Company, Annie Malone, and sold her products for her.
Whilst working for Malone, Sarah took on the knowledge and skills that she could form Malone’s company.
In 1905, Sarah and daughter A’Leila moved to Colorado and the mother set up her own hair care business and beauty line to sell to the African-American community.
However, drama ensued as Malone soon accused Sarah of stealing her beauty formula.
Sarah then went on to have her third marriage to newspaper advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker, where she takes on his name as Madam C.J .Walker.
A’Leila took Walker’s name too after the couple married in 1906.
The couple worked together to expand Madam’s brand as a beauty specialist and cosmetic retailer, with products including Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
Selling products door to door, Madam delivered these treatments and trained women on how to groom their own hair.
The family eventually moved to Pennsylvania and the business opened its first parlour and opened Leila College to train “hair culturists”.
As A’Leila ran Pennsylvania, Madam opened a new branch in Indianapolis that became the base for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910.
Employing a large number of female staff members, much of the senior management were also women.
However, the Walkers’ marriage fell apart and ended in divorce in 1912. Charles died in 1926.
At her daughter’s clever suggestion, the business moved into Harlem, New York City, in 1913 and became part of the blossoming African-American culture in the area.
Madam’s “Walker System” – which was the advice to shampoo, add pomade, brush strenuously, and applying iron combs to the hair – became her signature product line – which led to the clashes with Malone and other leading European competitors.
From 1911 to 1919, Madam employed thousands of women to act as agents to sell her products throughout the US and the Caribbean.
Heavily advertised in African-American magazines, her approach was a staple in the African-American community.
In addition to empowering women in roles in her company, Madam also worked as a philanthropist by training women to build their own businesses and become financially independent.
Setting up the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, Madam set up local and state-led clubs to enable all her female employees to feel empowered, eventually leading to a national convention where she awarded outstanding work and initiative amongst these women.
Madam donated to various organisations, often relating to women and African-American culture, whilst also being a notable patron of the arts in the US.
Sadly, on May 25, 1919, Madam C. J. Walker passed away after complications from her kidney failure and hypertension.
A’Leila became president of her company following her death.
In her New York Times obituary, it was noted that “she said herself two years ago [in 1917] that she was not yet a millionaire, but hoped to be some time, not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it.”
The Netflix series certainly depicts her meteoric rise, but it has, however, come in for some criticism.
One has been the portrayal of Annie Malone, who is replaced in the series by a fictionalised character named Addie Monroe (Carmen Ejogo) who is a much more villainous character.
Harlem World Magazine noted that “they “totally” made Addie Monroe a cartoonish villainess that stalked Madam Walker once Walker broke ties to her. Whether this was intentional or not, they vilified Annie Malone.”
They also wrote: “It could be argued that Malone was one of the most significant women in Sarah Breedlove’s life, next to her daughter, A’Lelia Walker.”
Considering much of Walker’s business and philanthropy had also been done earlier by Malone, it would seem Malone is under-served as a one-note villain in the tale when perhaps she is a more influential figure than Walker herself.
The show also makes Monroe a lighter-skinned mixed-race woman, whereas Malone herself was black.
While some may argue that tackling colourism is an important issue, as Walker struggles with it in the show, others see it as a misrepresentation of the truth and unnecessary.
Finally, the series also portrays A’Leila (Tiffany Haddish) as being a lesbian when there is no historical context to these scenes.
While the representation will be welcomed in some quarters, others will bemoan the invention of plot lines in a story already ripe enough for adaptation.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker is out now on Netflix.
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