Are you ready to learn from a boss? Madam C.J. Walker is the first female self made millionaire in American history. Her beauty empire and social activism made an incredible impact on the community and history. Her story is even more inspiring.
In this video, I talk about tips I gained from Self Made: the Netflix series inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, including: the balance between being urgent and greedy, the importance of betting on yourself, and how to succeed in relationships.
Now, let’s dive deeper. Like I said in the video, this series was not a biopic. At first, while watching it, I found the music selection jarring. The aesthetic is early 1900s, but the music is modern. That is what made me think that this might be more of an introduction to Madam C.J. Walker’s life, just like the movie “Like Martin.” However, I gradually realized that was not the case.
Let’s start with the two main characters: Madam C.J. Walker and Addie Munroe. In the series, they are two black women pushing a similar product for black hair. From throwing shade outside of church to throwing punches in a boxing ring, their rivalry is repeatedly illustrated through colorism and sabotage. In reality, Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone were business rivals with their own respective empires.
Annie Malone started producing her self made product Wonderful Hair Grower in the early 1900s. When she moved to St. Louis, she hired 3 sales agents, including Madam C.J. Walker, to help her continue sell her product door-to-door. She gave free treatments to attract more customers. Annie Malone continued to expand her business with her company Poro Company and opened a shop to train more women to sell her product. In 1918, she opened the Poro College, a cosmetology school and center that included a manufacturing plant, a retail store, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gym, bakery, and chapel. Through its curriculum and businesses, the college created jobs for 75,000 women in North America, South America, Africa, and the Philippines. Annie Malone became a multi-millionaire in the 1920s.
In a sense, Annie Malone mentored Madam C.J. Walker. The glitch in their relationship is up for interpretation, depending on whose story you look at. According to Team Walker, Madam C.J. Walker moved to Denver, Colorado to continue selling Wonderful Hair Grower and develop her own hair-care product. Annie Malone accused her of copying her formula, petroleum jelly and sulfur, which apparently had been used for hundreds of years. According to Team Malone, there was a disagreement between the two and Madam C.J. Walker left the company. She took the formula and made her own brand of it. This caused Annie Malone to copyright her products under the name “Poro” to discourage counterfeit versions.
Madam C.J. Walker marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer, with the help of her then husband and business partner, C.J. Walker. Her daughter remained in Denver to lead the mail-order operation while she and C.J. relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to open a beauty parlor and a training program called the “Walker System” to create a national network of licensed sales agents. Later, she closed the business in Denver, relocated the headquarters in Indianapolis, and established an office and beauty salon in Harlem. The headquarters included a factory, hair salon, beauty school, and laboratory. At the height of her career, the company trained over 20,000 women and increased sales around the US and the Caribbean.
Both Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone contributed substantially to a variety of charities, communities, and initiatives. There is a difference in the amount and type of information that can be found about either of them. They were both innovative, but Annie Malone was great with the vision and Madam C.J. Walker was great with the branding. I have now added two books to my list to read on this topic: On Her Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles and Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills.
With this information, why did the team behind the Netflix series decide to tell a different story? At first, you might assume the team was disconnected from the true story. Then you might take the time to find out who the team was. This is them talking about making the Netflix series Self Made.
So, a team full of black women, one of which is Madam C.J. Walker great-great-granddaughter, decided to illustrate the story like this. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for filling the gap in representation. I love that black history is being illustrated and shared on a bigger platform. It is wonderful and inspiring to see more black women in front of and behind the camera. Let’s continue that. I don’t agree with how they chose to alter history to paint certain people as heroes and others as villains. I don’t like how they diluted the hustle and impact all the characters had in real life.
I understand the series is entitled “inspire by” and “based on a true story,” but this is Black history. Can you honestly produce a movie “inspired by” the life of Abraham Lincoln and depict his wife as a lesbian having a secret affair with the neighbor’s wife? Can you really produce a movie “based on a true story” of the holocaust and depict a Jewish family as the villain? This is tricky. Black history is special because so much of it has been and continues to be erased, hidden, distorted, and destroyed. Children do not learn Black history in school. A lot of adults could learn more about Black history. So, if you have the golden opportunity to illustrate Black history on a mainstream platform, why not keep it 100?
It was a beautiful and high quality production, from cinematography to wardrobe. I feel so many of us are concerned about the content because we understand its impact. This series could be an introduction to this portion of history for a lot of people. Even though it should encourage folks to dig deeper and research on their own, will they? Can you rely on that? If not, this series unfortunately further enhances its audience’s bias against colorism among the Black community, depicting Black men as a liability instead of an asset, and inserting LGBTQ fantasies as if the original story was not enticing enough. There needs to be a balance. Black joy and Black pain can’t always be a form of entertainment.
Now, let’s look into relationships. This is the clip I mentioned in the video:
Has anything changed or evolved? Do we feel the same? Have our priorities changed? Do we still need programming? For me, watching these types of discussions make me feel like I am watching a Tom & Jerry episode where a 3rd character knocks the man and the woman from behind without them seeing, and they both argue with each other assuming it was the other who did it. What if the enemy or perpetrator is not even in the room? Would that change the discussion? Yes, there is a lot we need to take responsibility for. There is a lot more we could to move forward.
The feeling of inadequacy and being attacked is on both sides. This creates the defensive behavior and guarded personality we carry everywhere. How do we balance the need for trust and generosity in our relationships? Fast-forward to now, there is a lot of talk, as well as real participation, about therapy, self-care, and healing. There is more discussions about accountability and acceptance. Is this making a difference in our relationships with others? I hope so.
Overall, I enjoyed the Netflix series as well as researching the characters and history. What did you think about the series and history? What do you think about the clip? Let me know in the comments below.
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