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Octavia Spencer Stars in 'Self-Made,' the Extraordinary Story of Madam C.J. Walker
March 20, 2020  | By David Hinckley

We know where the story of Madam C.J. Walker is going. At the time of her death in 1919, no woman in America had earned more money on her own.

Self Made, which premieres on Netflix Friday, and stars Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker, tracks the ambitious and complicated path by which she got there.

Walker’s life story had too many twists and turns to fit into even a miniseries, so Self Made is a streamlined version sensibly billed as “Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.”

Its general outline, in any case, seems biographically correct.

Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana two years after the Civil War. Her recently emancipated parents had both died by the time she was 7.

She married at 14 to escape an abusive brother-in-law and had a daughter at 17. Her husband died, she married again, they were divorced, she scratched out a living as a domestic. Sadly, not an uncommon story.

But because she had serious problems with her hair, and because she saw hair as a critical part of every woman’s life, she developed an interest in products that could help women – particularly women of color, who were ignored by the major hair products manufacturers of the time. What was available often contained ingredients like lye, so it’s no wonder hair care was a nightmare.

By 1904 Walker was selling products for Annie Malone, who saw the untapped potential market among black women.

Malone is renamed in Self Made as Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo) and portrayed as a witch, a light-skinned black woman (“mulatto”) with contempt for darker-skinned women. At one point, Addie tells Sarah, “I don’t want you associated with my product.”

Self Made pumps up their rivalry, and rewrites it a bit, to make Addie the Big Bad. Whatever the actual dynamic, Breedlove eventually developed her own product line. By then, she was married to C.J. Walker (Blair Underwood), whose name she used for that product line because she felt it sounded more elegant.

Walker won the competition with Addie because she had both a better product and a superior instinct for marketing.

Once the Walker products were widely known in the African-American community, Walker set up a sales network, much like the one used years later by Mary Kay, with incentives for the saleswomen to move as much product as possible.

Self Made also captures some, though not all, of the hopscotching that marked Walker’s professional career. She moved all over the country, from Denver to Indianapolis to New York, setting up new operations and expanding the old ones. While she had almost no formal education, she had a shrewd business sense.

She had less luck in her personal life. The demands of her business were largely responsible for her eventual split from C.J., though Self Made notes there was also another factor: She was determined to have her own money and make her own decisions, not to rely on her man.

This notion was unpopular with C.J. and particularly unpopular with his father, Cleophus (Garrett Morris).

Madam Walker’s life is occasionally complicated by minidramas around her, including the marriage of her daughter Lelia (Tiffany Haddish) to a man that Madam Walker considers a ne’er-do-well because he wants to open a juke joint.

Madam Walker mostly writes her own story, though, and while she can be rough-edged, Self Made notes that once she had money, she spread it around generously. She supported both individuals and larger causes like anti-lynching and voting rights.

Shorthand for Madam C.J. Walker has often tagged her as America’s first black female millionaire, though partly because of her philanthropy, she didn’t quite get there. Still, her estate at the time of her death would have made a millionaire many times over in contemporary dollars, and Self Made provides an uplifting narration of the obstacles she had to surmount to get from almost nothing to there.

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