Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker series exalts one woman while tarnishing the legacy of another. It is the problematic storyline that consumes much of the Kasi Lemmons directed period piece. The character Addie Munroe (played by Carmen Ejogo) has drawn comparison to Annie Turnbo Malone, the businesswoman who actually created the “Wonder Hair Grower” product and taught Walker (played by Octavia Spencer) her formula. Munroe is positioned as Walker’s on screen foe — the uninvited reflection in the rear of her cosmetic mirror. Malone is never actually mentioned in Self Made, but the misrepresentation of her character was effective.
Madam C.J. Walker is credited with being the first Black woman millionaire and the inventor of the first Black hair care line that she created after struggling with hair loss. That’s the version we’ve read for a long time and the version reiterated by Self Made. But that is only partially true. Walker actually worked for Malone, who had well-established her hair care brand long before Walker. Walker became one of her top door-to-door beauty consultants until venturing off and building her own million dollar company.
All of which is inspiring, yet Self Made misses the mark establishing the importance of both women and instead pits them against one another. Munroe is the fair-skinned antagonist who just won’t quit. Walker is more business-savvy and relatable. In real life, Monroe was brown skin and more-likely Walker’s mentor than her unrelenting enemy.
Malone combined her passion for chemistry and knowledge about herbs to create hair products for Black woman who wanted to straighten their hair without the damage or more alcohol-based products already on the market. Malone coached Walker on how to revive her hair following years of hair loss, which was reportedly due to dandruff and psoriasis. Malone’s regimen included tending to the scalp and using sulfur-based products. Along with a changed diet and scalp massages to stimulate follicles.(VOX). Seeking a larger clientele, Malone moved to St. Louis in 1902 to meet the booming economy. She was a millionaire by 1914. She went on to establish Poro College in St. Louis in 1918 and revolutionized the beauty industry on an educational front.
Alleged descendants of Malone have shared their concern for her legacy after the release of Self Made.
“It is very disturbing that the producers and Walker family supported the storyline at the expense of Annie Malone’s beautiful legacy,” Pamela Tornbo Thorpe wrote in a lengthy post circulating Facebook.
Self Made does a respectable job exploring the nuances of Black hair on a historical front. Though flawed, it brings to life Madam C.J. Walker’s inspiring “rise to riches” story. We learn the sacrifices she made to become the historic figure she is. The mini-series exposes the roots of colorism and featurism. Octavia Spencer is believable as Madam C.J. Walker and Blair Underwood is enchanting as her husband. Watching a Black women command her voice be heard in captivating scenes with Booker T. Washington (played by Roger Guenveur Smith). Obviously Munroe’s character was provocative and provided entertainment value but both women deserve to have their story told, accurately.