A Descendant of Madam C.J. Walker Speaks on the ‘Self Made’ Controversy

What lines should be drawn between fact and fiction of a Black historical figure?

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When I first learned that Netflix was turning On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles into a four-part series, I was thrilled. Not only was the anticipation of an on-screen, scripted dramatization of her life exciting for entertainment purposes, but I was hopeful this visibility might take a Black woman’s iconic legacy and vault her into a historic household name for all Americans. We’re now six days into the release of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, and I think it’s safe to say that the limited series has grown visibility for a Black female hair mogul — but the question is, which one?

Self Made positions the fictionalized character Addie Munroe as the early confidante-turned-rival of Madam Walker’s ambitions. When they first meet, Addie is selling her own hair growth products door to door. A beat-down Sarah Walker welcomes Addie into her home, where they strike a deal: Sarah, a washer woman whose extensive work with chemical cleaning agents has caused most of her hair to fall out, will launder Addie’s clothes, and in return, receive free hair treatments. Over time, her hair grows back, and she aspires to work for Addie as a door-to-door saleswoman.

When she presents this idea to Addie — who is fair-skinned and in possession of “good hair” — she is refused. Addie berates her, saying, “Even in your Sunday best you look like you just stepped off the plantation. These are my products, and I will not have the likes of you associated with them.” This moment serves a crucial purpose: It establishes an early and prominent villain, a person with the drive and resources to thwart our heroine’s dreams. It also roots their conflict in the elevation of white standards of beauty in the Black community — something we are still dealing with today. Instinctively, we are compelled to root for Sarah Walker even harder. The only problem? This storyline is largely false. It was almost entirely dreamt up by the script writers for the purpose of maximizing tension, conflict, and drama.

The truth is that Addie Munroe never existed. Her character is meant to represent a fictionalized version of Madam Walker’s real-life competitor, Annie Malone. While Malone and Walker were rivals in business, there’s little historical accuracy in the way Self Made portrays Malone, or her relationship to Walker. Photographs show Annie Malone to have been a dark-skinned woman who, in fact, did employ Sarah Walker as a saleswoman. There is little documentation about their falling out — though there was one — and nothing to suggest Malone spent much time trying to thwart her competitor’s success. Some historians have even referred to her as Walker’s mentor. But however you consider their real-life relationship, the public response denouncing Self Made’s portrayal of Malone has been swift and loud.

In a piece for NBC News, Nadra Nittle writes that Self Made gives the issue of colorism “undue attention,” noting that while Walker likely experienced discrimination because she was dark skinned, there’s no evidence that it came from her business rival, who was a similarly darker hued woman. Many pieces have also taken care to discuss Malone’s work as a philanthropist, which, much like Walker’s, is largely absent from the series. The social media response, in particular, suggests a certain miscalculation on Netflix’s part. Black women entrepreneurs face enough foes when building businesses. Many viewers don’t want to see in-fighting between rivals for the sake of narrative conflict, especially when it’s exaggerated to such a degree.

A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, has been particularly outspoken about the myths that are perpetuated in the Netflix series.

The basis of Self Made is the well-researched biography written by the subject’s great-great granddaughter, who happens to be a journalist. It’s a story about one woman beating insurmountable odds with unapologetic ambition, perseverance, leadership, and innovative thinking. For a black woman born in 1867, all of this is radical and constitutes a life of far-reaching, global impact. But in telling the story of Madam C.J. Walker, Netflix also tells the story of the very real people and lives who occupied her orbit. We learn about two of her three husbands, as well as her employee Freeman Ransom. We learn about her daughter A’Lelia Walker’s marriage, her queerness, and her role in bringing the family and their business to Harlem. All of these people are rendered with varying degrees of historical accuracy. And we learn about Annie Malone. In the effort to animate one luminary’s life, another’s life is, at best misrepresented, and at worst dishonored.

A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, has been particularly outspoken about the myths that are perpetuated in the Netflix series, as well as the portrayal of Malone and Walker’s relationship, which she says is a little too close for comfort to the trope of Black women in conflict. “I find that there’s a template for stories around Black women in Hollywood. I want to shatter that template because as Black women, we owe our audience stories that, at their core, are authentic and accurate. This is probably a good opportunity to have conversations between authors and Hollywood writers and producers.”

Though Bundles’ role as a consulting producer entitled her to review the script, make notes, and send feedback to the writers, that was as deep as her involvement could be in the writing. “I …spent decades researching and writing about all of this. The show runners took some of my suggestions and ignored others.” But Bundles also recognizes the value in finally telling the story through such a massive platform. Madam C.J. Walker is a household name for many Black American families, but the same cannot be said for her place in the consciousness of white America. And to many folks, the details of her life had previously been shrouded in mystery. “People didn’t even know her name. And now people are talking about her. And now people know Annie Malone’s name, people who didn’t know her name last week. And I understand the frustration people feel because we don’t get to see ourselves very often, and when we do, we want to feel good about what we’ve seen. Both of these women deserve to be remembered and to have their stories told.”

There are many wonderful aspects of the series, from the soundtrack and the costumes, to the luminous performances of both Octavia Spencer (Madam Walker) and Carmen Ejogo (Addie Munroe). But perhaps, in future on-screen adaptations of the lives of historical figures, more care will be taken to lift up every story that deserves to be told.

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