“Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker”–First Female Millionaire in US

This mini-series was inspired by a  biography written by Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles (“On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker”).  This Netflix four-episode mini-series highlights the extraordinary, –almost unbelievable– life of Sarah Breedlove (1867 –1919), an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. Sara Breedlove–soon to prefer the brand name Madam CJ Walker– is the first female self-made millionaire in America (regardless of ethnicity) in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Self-Made is a little-known and highly unlikely story of the black hair care pioneer during turn-of-the-century America, who created thousands of jobs and became a neighbor of John Rockefeller in upstate New York.

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays Madam CJ Walker, during the worst of the Jim Crow era.   No bank loans, no white retail store support, and competition and sexism among the Black male business community presented almost insurmountable obstacles to Madam CJ Walker’s dreams and ambitions.  Walker’s story is one of extraordinary grit, cunning and marketing ingenuity, and absolute determination against post-slavery racial and gender oppression.

Self-Made opens at the beginning of the 20th Century, sandwiched twenty years after the Civil War and a half-century before the Civil Rights movement.  An indigent African American laundry woman widowed by her first husband, who left her a single mother of a two-year old daughter Lelia, and abused by her second husband, Sarah Breedlove yearns for a path out of her desperate circumstances. 

During the early 1900s most homes lacked plumbing and electricity. Environmental pollution, lice, and bacteria also threatened one’s health.  Bathing was a luxury and women were going bald.  As the laundry woman for a beauty-products business woman, Addie Malone (the luminous Carmen Ejogo of “Your Honor”), Sarah is rejected when she proposes being Addie’s business partner. The reason?  Her appearance: 

 “Even in your Sunday best you still look like you just stepped off the plantation,” Addie –brutal and arrogant—insultingly dismisses her.   

The complicated relationship between Black hair and white ideals of beauty soon become a central theme of Self-Made.  Addie represents a lighter skinned, long-hair type which some Black women wanted to emulate.  Sarah– soon to label her products Madam CJ Walker–understood that hair was not a benign topic for Black women but a potent measure of a Black woman’s worth.  And she wanted to create another ideal of beauty that appreciated and acknowledged Black women on their own terms, not ones imputed on them.  At first, she gratefully receives validation from her husband, CJ Walker (Blair Underwood), for his admiration of her physical appearance.

Her daughter, Lelia (Tiffany Haddish), is both a source of disappointment and later of joy as she recognizes the sacrifices her mother has made for her family and for her business.  While other products for Black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, Walker’s products emphasized health and natural ingredients, not the lye and harmful chemicals often found in Black hair products.  She sold her homemade products directly to Black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of saleswomen to sell her products whom she called “beauty culturalists.” [This method of “direct sales” was later copied–most notably by Fuller Brush and Avon.]

Walker proved to be a marketing magician, promoting a better lifestyle for Black women, bolstering them with pride for advancement and higher pay: “Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities.”

In one scene, Madam CJ Walker pleads with a rather officious Booker T. Washington to help her secure a business loan from wealthy Black businessmen in the community, but he admonishes her that Black women should know their place. Undeterred, Sarah appeals to Washington’s wife and taps into a whole community of wealthy, highly educated, but disgruntled women.  In sharp contrast, W.E.B. DuBois warmly welcomes her business acumen.

The performances knock it out of the park.  Octavia Spencer is made for this role: smart and contained, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who won’t take “No” for an answer.

The major flaw in Self-Made–and not to be ignored–is the somewhat cringeworthy cinematic device of fantasy sequences with dancers or boxers to indicate the mean-spirited and unrelenting rivalry between Walker and Addie.    Such visual clutter is a distraction from an otherwise forceful script. The soundtrack is also, at times, jarring and out of tone or theme with the scenes. 

A highly inspirational mini-series of almost miraculous feats by Madam CJ Walker.  Should be on everyone’s watch list!

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  Lelia Walker, who succeeded as president of her mother’s company, was dubbed “The Joy Goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by Langston Hughes because of the crucial role she played in creating a

Manhattan salon, The Dark Tower.  This salon contributed to the arts scene of one of the most fertile periods in American literature and the arts, especially forging a safehaven for gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Note:   The self-made millionaire used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated significant funds to orphanages, the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities.

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One Reply to ““Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker”–First Female Millionaire in US”

  1. Interesting and indeed needs watching.

    Finished a fantasy book and still at work on literary novel, Sharp&Sabine. In process to trying to find a fantasy publisher. Don’t know that territory, but I’m looking!

    Hope all’s well with you,
    Best,
    Lenore