Fact or Fiction: Netflix’s “Self Made” and the Real Story of Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker’s story is about resilience, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madam Walker successfully navigated challenges of being African American and a woman in early 20th-century America to create not only a hair care empire, but also to become a strong advocate for civil rights, the arts, and women’s financial independence.
With a life like that, it should come as no surprise that Netflix is premiering a miniseries based on Madam Walker’s experiences. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker stars Octavia Spencer and chronicles the rise of a woman who is recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being the first self-made female millionaire.
While the Netflix series approaches Madam C.J. Walker’s story with the respect it deserves, it does take some artistic license; dates are conflated, characters are invented, and for the sake of drama, some relationships are heightened. As fans of Madam Walker’s story (her home in Irvington, New York, Villa Lewaro, was a National Treasure), we are taking the opportunity to share more about Madam C.J. Walker’s life—and what the series changed—through her great-great-granddaughter and biographer A’Lelia Bundles.
For Bundles, this series is an opportunity, not only because it is a vehicle for sharing an important story about African American history, but also because it will introduce Madam Walker to a whole new group of people and encourage them to learn more about “[someone] who overcame great obstacles and inspired thousands of women.”
When Bundles visited the set in Toronto in fall 2019, she was impressed by the care that had been given by the production team to recreating the details of Madam Walker’s life from the wigs and costumes to the sets and props. She was particularly moved by a scene directed by DeMane Davis in which Octavia Spencer and Kevin Carroll (as attorney Freeman B. Ransom) confront the emotional topic of lynching.
Read on to learn more about Madam C.J. Walker’s life and some of the things you don’t see in the miniseries.
Let’s talk about place. The Netflix series sets most of the story in Indianapolis. What are some things viewers should know about where Madam C.J. Walker lived and worked?
Madam Walker arrived in Indianapolis in February 1910. She moved from St. Louis to Denver in 1905. She settled in Pittsburgh in 1908 after traveling for a year and a half throughout the southwestern and southern United States. She moved from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis because she was attracted to the thriving black business community. Located near the center of population during the early 1900s, the city provided a great transportation hub for her mail order business.
What was Madam Walker’s original product, and why did she create it?
While still a poor washerwoman in St. Louis, Sarah Breedlove (later known as Madam Walker), began to lose her hair. In the early 1900s, when most American homes lacked indoor plumbing, personal hygiene practices—including bathing and hair washing—were very different than they are today. As a result, many people had severe dandruff and scalp infections that caused baldness. To treat her hair loss, Madam Walker developed her Wonderful Hair Grower, a thick ointment called petrolatum with the consistency of Vaseline. Sulfur acted as a medicinal agent to heal the infections that caused hair loss.
Self Made sets up a rivalry between Madam C.J. Walker and a character named Addie Monroe. Is Addie Monroe a real person? What is the inspiration for this character?
In trying to show many of the obstacles Madam Walker faced, the script writers have said that Addie Monroe is a composite representing several characters and themes and not meant to be a specific person. Inevitably many viewers who already know something about Madam Walker will draw comparisons between Monroe and Annie Turnbo Pope Malone. Madam Walker, then known as Sarah Breedlove Davis, worked as a sales agent for the real-life Annie Turnbo Pope Malone, who founded the Poro Company in St. Louis around 1902. After moving to Denver in July 1905, Sarah continued selling Poro products for about eight months. In April 1906, after her new husband Charles Joseph Walker joined her in Denver, Sarah Breedlove changed her name to Madam C. J. Walker and placed her first Walker advertisement in the Denver Statesman to promote her own product line.
While the two women were fierce competitors, the rivalry between Madam Walker and “Addie Monroe”—including the direct confrontations and arguments—is exaggerated in the series for dramatic effect. Annie Malone did not conspire with John Robinson, Madam Walker’s son-in-law, and did not lure a group of Walker agents.
Madam Walker was first exposed to the hair care business through her brothers, who were barbers during the 1890s in St. Louis. Later she consulted with dermatologists and pharmacists as she developed new products.
While Addie Monroe leaves St. Louis, the real life Annie Turnbo Pope Malone did not move to Indianapolis. She remained in Missouri, married Aaron Malone in 1914, and built a large factory and beauty school in 1917. After a bitter divorce from Aaron Malone in 1927, she moved her company to Chicago.
Both women were pioneers of the modern hair care industry and founders of companies that provided jobs for thousands of women. Both were also philanthropists whose large gifts benefited a number of African American organizations, schools, institutions, and individuals.
The show presents a conflict between Madam Walker and Booker T. Washington. How realistic is this depiction?
There’s no real-life evidence of this particular behind the scenes conversation, though Washington did initially keep Madam Walker at a distance. While he had snubbed her at the 1912 National Negro Business League (NNBL) convention in Chicago, she still managed to make a speech before the group where she said “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…I have built my own factory on my own ground.” A year later, Washington’s attitude toward her had changed considerably in part because of her $1,000 contribution to the building fund of a black YMCA in Indianapolis. He invited her to make formal remarks at the 1913 NNBL convention in Philadelphia. When Washington visited Indianapolis in 1913 for the YMCA dedication, he was a guest in her home and she had her chauffeur pick him up at the train station.
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In episode two of “Self Made,” we hear from members of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the largest federation of local black women’s clubs that was founded in 1896 to advocate for African American women’s rights and equality (including suffrage). What should viewers know about NACW?
In Episode 2, Margaret Murray Washington says, “It’s just not our place…We live in a man’s world…We choose to be here [in the kitchen] …We club women, we socialize in the serving room.” But given the origins of the NACW and its founding members, it is unlikely that they would have consigned themselves to the kitchen. The NACW was founded in 1896 (predating the NAACP) and included very independent women. Many of the early members and officers were college graduates, and outspoken, political activists and educators who traveled internationally.
While it would not be unusual for women today to celebrate with a champagne toast, this scene would have been very unlikely because many of the club women were supporters of the Temperance Movement and were opposed to drinking alcoholic beverages.
Did Madam Walker live next door to John D. Rockefeller, and did she visit him?
Madam Walker’s Villa Lewaro and Rockefeller’s Kykuit (a National Trust Historic Site) are about three miles apart in Westchester County, New York. There is no evidence, however, that the two owners met each other. It is unlikely that she would have walked onto his property or consulted him for advice.
You’ve spoken about how you hope this film will spark more interest in Madam C.J. Walker and her life. Where can people learn more about this fascinating figure?
A four-part series can only scratch the surface, so I truly hope viewers will be inspired to want to learn more about Madam Walker! Scribner has released a new paperback edition of my book, On Her Own Ground, with a revised epilogue and a few updates. I recently recorded the audio version, which was a lot of fun. The title will temporarily be Self Made and the cover will have Octavia Spencer dressed as Madam Walker in order to tie in with the series. I’m sure that will become a collector’s item!
Today, Madam Walker’s legacy is carried on by the Madam Walker Legacy Center (a cultural venue in Indianapolis), MCJW (a line of hair care products manufactured by Sundial Brands and sold exclusively at Sephora.com), Villa Lewaro (Madam Walker’s mansion in Irvington, New York) and the Madam Walker Family Archives, which includes hundreds of photos and letters I’m fortunate to have inherited from my family. The Indiana Historical Society recently digitized more than 40,000 items from the Madam Walker Collection, which the Walker Estate donated during the early 1980s, and opened a new Madam Walker exhibit in September 2019.