Through much of the 20th century, generations of young black girls heard snippets of the legend of Madam C.J. Walker as they sat beside kitchen stoves on Saturday nights, getting their hair straightened with a hot comb in preparation for Sunday morning church.
Walker, who died in 1919 as America’s first female self-made millionaire, built a vast fortune on “Wonderful Hair Grower” and other products for black women. But sometimes the tales got tangled. One of those handed down from mothers to daughters credited her, erroneously, with the invention of the hot comb — embellishing a larger-than-life story that hardly required it.
She came into the world as Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867, two years after slavery ended. Of Owen and Minerva Breedlove’s six children, she was the first “born free," as she often said.
By age 7, she was an orphan, headed to the Mississippi Delta with her sister to pick cotton. By 14, she was a wife; by 17, a mother, and by 20, a widow struggling to survive as a laundress in St. Louis.
Yet, by her mid-40s, she had transformed into Madam C.J. Walker, reigning over a hair-care empire so lucrative that she built for herself a 34-room, 20,000-square-foot Italianate mansion in the Hudson Valley, down the road from John D. Rockefeller’s place. More than an entrepreneur, she was a social and political activist, a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, a philanthropist who spread her wealth far and wide, from the Black YMCA to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign.
If ever there was a bio made for the screen, it was Madam’s.
When the four-part Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker premiered on March 20, viewers hunkered down to watch, hoping for an uplifting respite from mounting coronavirus anxiety. Not all liked what they saw: a “colorism” feud that, Walker scholars say, was cut from Hollywood whole cloth.
Colorism is discrimination by members of the same racial group targeting those with darker skin. In Self Made, it is spun into a central theme, pitting the dark-complexioned Walker, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, against her fictionalized business rival, the villainous, lighter-skinned Addie Monroe, played by Carmen Ejogo. The friction between the two is dramatized through repetitive fantasy scenes in a boxing ring, where the women furiously punch the air with gloved fists from their opposing corners.
Although the series’ writers have said Monroe is a composite character, those who know Walker’s story see a barely veiled — and considerably lightened — version of the real black-hair-care magnate Annie Turnbo Malone.
Around 1903, after a lack of indoor plumbing and the harsh lyes of her laundress job caused the young Sarah Breedlove to develop a scalp condition and bald patches, she began using a sulfurous balm manufactured by the pioneering Malone. Looking for an escape route from the penury in which she and her daughter lived, Breedlove became a sales agent. In Denver, she married her third husband, journalist Charles Joseph Walker, and before long struck out on her own as Madam C.J. Walker, appropriating the name of Malone’s product — “Wonderful Hair Grower” — and tweaking the formula into her own.
Both women became millionaires, though who got there first is arguable. What’s not in dispute: the negligible difference in skin tone between the two. Their rivalry was all about business.
Critics of Self Made could not contain their indignation over Walker’s life narrative being twisted into a colorism-fueled cat fight, an early 1900s Real Housewives. The Association of Black Women Historians convened a Self Made webcast in which they urged directors and writers to collaborate with historians “to offer storytelling that is authentic.”
Although “colorism was very real, and still is,” it was a mistake for the series’ creators to focus on “light-skin privilege” through the malevolent character of Addie Monroe, said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the association’s director and a Rutgers University history professor. In doing so, they made "viewers forget that the real villain during this period was white supremacy.”
The historians said they understood the use of “artistic license” to heighten the drama, but Self Made overstepped. Even when the entire creative team is African American, Dunbar said, “that doesn’t mean we can’t wave the flag if there is a problem.”
Basketball great LeBron James, the Oscar-winning Spencer, and Harriet director Kasi Lemmons are among the executive producers. Lemmons and DeMane Davis (Queen Sugar) each directed two of the four episodes.
The series is rooted in a 2001 biography by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, titled On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
The 67-year-old Bundles, a former journalist and ABC News executive, has been on a nearly lifelong mission to find a broader audience for Walker’s story, beginning in 1970 when, as a high school senior, she wrote a paper on her. Before Self Made, she attempted on other occasions to bring the Walker biography to the small screen, but those projects, including one with Roots author Alex Haley, never took flight.
As an author, “it’s important for me to create an accurate historical record,” Bundles said in a recent phone interview. But, she added, she has learned that TV and movie types aren’t as wedded to facts. “They also think, ‘How do we make a story that’s going to be appealing to an audience?’ Some of the decisions they made are their personal creative decisions and different than the decisions I would make as a journalist.”
In optioning On Her Own Ground for the Netflix series, she had script review rights. But, she said, she played no role in pumping up the colorism conflict or a lesbian relationship between a fictional character named “Esther” and Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker. Bundles is working on a biography of the latter, who was famous for the parties she hosted in her “Dark Tower” salon in 1920s Harlem, prompting poet Langston Hughes to nickname her "the Joy Goddess of Harlem.”
Self Made, Bundles pointed out, is “inspired” by Madam Walker’s life and doesn’t purport to be a documentary. Some viewers, she acknowledged, don’t realize that.
On the bright side, she said, the controversy has stirred interest in the real Walker and Malone.
“Octavia Spencer is so strong in that role, even when the historical details are not accurate," Bundles said. "She has been so gracious and she has encouraged people to read my books.”
The criticism of Self Made points to broader questions: As the TV and film industry increasingly takes on stories of heroic figures from African American history, what standards of accuracy should be applied? When does the pursuit of dramatic tension — for instance, pitting protagonists against other black characters of exaggerated malevolence — become a denial of that history?
Consider Harriet, the 2019 biographical movie about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Amid the surge of optimism at seeing her remarkable story on the big screen, there was disappointment that the primary villain was a fictional black bounty hunter named “Bigger Long" — not the white people who enslaved Tubman and her family.
In Self Made, “they Hollywoodized this series to death to make it more salable," André Robert Lee, a Philadelphia director, producer, and Wharton School adjunct professor, said during the historians’ webcast.
The boxing scenes, he said, gave him the sense of “the white gaze” — of white movie executives “who hold the purse strings” suggesting melodramatic buffoonery as a way of appealing to the “low-hanging fruit” among audiences who wouldn’t think beyond the images they saw.
Some said Self Made also missed the mark by not focusing on Walker’s meteoric rise from poverty.
“I was really struck by how little we learn about Walker,” Tiffany M. Gill, an associate professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware, said during the webcast. “She lived an exceptional life.”
Still, the panelists said they were grateful the series was made.
“It is a moment when we are seeing black people centered in films and television in a way that we haven’t … and the stakes are high," Dunbar said. "We all want the same thing — to get [the stories] right.”