Netflix’s “Self Made”: What's Fact and What's Fiction?
Netflix takes some liberties in its portrayal of Madame CJ Walker, a trailblazing Black entrepreneur.
March 29, 2021
Self Made is a 4 part mini-series on Netflix that depicts the rise of early 20th century’s hair care business mogul, Madam CJ Walker. It is based on the book On Her Own Ground (now renamed Self Made), a biography authored by none other than the great-great-granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker, A’Lelia Bundles.
Since it’s a biopic and might possibly be some viewers’ first introduction to the story of Madam CJ Walker, it’s important to note what is fact and what is fiction so that her legacy remains intact. Note that in this article, I will refer to our heroine by any one of her names: Sarah Breedlove, Mrs. Walker, and of course, Madam CJ Walker.
So, how historically accurate was the mini-series?
Let’s dive in.
FACT: Sarah Breedlove had a self-made fortune.
She built an empire with hair care products. She changed her name when she married CJ Walker, and did not inherit her money nor did she marry into it.
FICTION: She was a millionaire.
According to A’Lelia Bundles, Madam CJ Walker died with a fortune of 600 thousand USD. Even though that sum amounts to 9 million dollars in today’s money (when adjusted with inflation) our protagonist never amassed 1 million in her lifetime. Wrongly attributed as being the first female self-made millionaire by The Guinness Book of World Records, that title might have actually gone to Annie Malone.
“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them” — Madam CJ Walker
FACT: She had a business rivalry with another female hair care entrepreneur.
Madam CJ Walker first worked under the tutelage of another hair care businesswoman, Annie Turnbo Malone. After working as her sales rep, Madam CJ Walker started her own line of products which were eerily similar to Annie Malone’s products, down to the name: Wonderful Hair Grower.
FICTION: Addie Munroe.
Addie Munroe is supposed to serve as Annie Turnbo Malone’s fictional counterpart in the mini-series. The competition between her and Madam Walker is the main conflict and Addie comes out as the clear villain. But Annie Malone never saw Madam CJ Walker as her arch-nemesis to the extent that the Netflix series would have you believe.
There is also a storyline that pits Sarah and Addie against each other because the fictional “Addie” symbolizes the coveted light-skinned standard of Blackness which makes our protagonist self-conscious about her darker skin. In real life, it seems like the rivalry was strictly business. Also, testimonials recount Annie as being the first millionaire, though that is disputed because accounts of her money are less well documented than Madam Walker’s.
FACT: Lelia (Sarah’s daughter) lived and worked in Harlem, supported queer rights, and was a patron of the arts.
She owned the Dark Tower hair salon in Harlem and had many LGBTQ customers and friends. She helped shape the Harlem Renaissance and eventually took over the company after her mom’s death.
FICTION: Lelia’s lesbian relationship.
It’s unclear how this storyline came about in Self Made. By all accounts, her depicted sexuality was a total fabrication for the series, possibly to add a layer to the character or add dramatic tension between her and her mother. Even if her homosexuality was an open secret amongst her family, it’s doubtful that they would choose this platform to out her.
FACT: Sarah Breedlove married an ad-man named CJ Walker.
This is true, and he did contribute to advertising for the family business. They divorced as in the series and she kept her name. He tried to start another beauty business with his second wife and failed.
FICTION: He was not her second husband nor did they move from St. Louis to Pittsburgh together.
They met in Denver (which was completely omitted from the series) and he was Sarah Breedlove’s third husband. She also did not draw out their divorce for years like in Self Made.
FACT: Madam CJ Walker had a trusted attorney called Ransom.
He took care of the company and became CEO once Lelia died.
FICTION: Cousin “Sweetness”
In the series, Ransom has a cousin tied to organized crime who eventually gets lynched for defending Ransom’s son. Though it made for powerful content, the character that Ransom worries over never existed in real life.
FACT: She met Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois
Madam Walker made the biggest donation to the NAACP at the time in 1919. It was for $5000 which translates into $77000 in today’s money. That was one of her many philanthropic ventures.
FICTION: Booker T. Washington endorsing Addie Munroe
In Self Made, Booker T. Washington endorses the Annie Malone substitute, Addie Munroe. His endorsement fuels Sarah and Addie’s rivalry. In reality, he did not believe in beauty products, saw them as vain, and would never have promoted a beauty business.
So, there we go. It seems Self Made got its own beauty treatment in the shape of a Hollywood revision that glossed over accurate history in favor of a more dramatized storyline.
The fictionalization did not seem to make for a better story. Even in the realm of fantasy, the dream sequences in each episode were a bit gratuitous. Part 1 shows a boxing match. Part 2 shows a musical. Part 3 shows the “Walker Girl,” the light-skinned standard of beauty haunting Sarah. Part 4 shows flashbacks to her parents. These dream sequences, along with the modern soundtrack, back-dropped to an era-appropriate setting and costume design, seem a little out of place.
Although the intent was probably to introduce the Madam CJ Walker story to a new audience, by omitting certain key elements of the story, Self Made has constructed a skewed vision of the Madam CJ Walker story.
Despite its deviations from history, Self Made rates high on the Incluvie scale. It shows African American women (and men) as successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, sales agents, and more at a time when the generation before them were enslaved.
Even though it’s likely a fictional addition, the series depicts Lelia as a lesbian and treats the subject delicately.
A truly inspirational story of a self-made woman, played beautifully and with heart by the amazing Octavia Spencer. The production team, directors, and writers are also Black.