Madam Cj Walker’s story on Netflix premiered this weekend, and while I absolutely loved the costuming and seeing a black woman overcome the very real struggles of that era to get ahead, I’ve got mixed feelings about it.
Let me begin by saying Madam CJ Walker’s story has ways been phenomenal– a shining light and example of perseverance, determination, and the power of a dream that serves people. Throughout the four episodes, we watch Madam CJ portrayed wonderfully by Octavia Spencer, use the power of her truth to empower others. This dark-skinned, broad nose, voluptuous woman contradicts the European standards of beauty black women know all too well, and wins in the beauty industry (more on this later). She overcomes the abuse so commonly found in households of the day to find her self-worth. She fights off the sexual belittlement of attempted rape by an investor and goes against the grain by taking on a powerful man who believes that men should always supersede women. She leaves her cheating husband and goes on to build an outstanding legacy that lands her on the New York Times and living next to John D. Rockefeller. Powerful.
Yet, I found parts of this movie difficult to watch. My two most significant challenges with the way this story is told were the inaccurate facts portrayed about her daughter A’Leila, and the description of her relationship with Addie Munroe. I encourage you to do some more research on both these women to get a full understanding of the role they played in the legacy of Madam CJ Walker’s life and her company. It’s their depictions that cause me to question what was made up about Self Made.
While I understand that Self Made was only ”inspired” by Sarah’s life and the writers, therefore, had some leniency on how it showed up on the screen I was disappointed that they chose to make Addie and Sarah’s story one of hatred and colorism when Addie had been Sarah’s mentor. There is no doubt that colorism continues to play an essential role in the black community and should have been a part of the movie to raise it in our consciousness and conversations but this display was unfair if you do the research. The colorism angle could have played out through Dora and CJ’s betrayal, in why Sarah put her face on the ads rather than ”the walker girl” and in so many other ways besides Addie being a light skin vengeful person tearing down a darker-skinned woman.
Since I mentioned women going against each other, now is a good time to talk about Dora. Sis was trifling. CJ’s best sales agent, who then turns around, takes her best workers, her husband, and tries to steal her legacy! Can someone say Judas? This unfortunate tale is all too real. It’s the story of the people closest to you being the most jealous of you and wanting what you have. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t think you can prevent Dora’s in your life. You can be prayerful and discerning, but we need people and so cutting them all off and not letting people get close isn’t an option. What is true, though, is that Sarah was successful despite these betrayals, and we can be too.
The dynamics between CJ and Sarah were painful to watch. Here was a man supporting the vision his wife had, but when the business began to require what building any successful business does, time- he sought attention elsewhere. That’s not to say that Sarah treated him much better. She could have been a lot more nurturing, loving, and open to including him. In this relationship, like so many, I’ve watched fail on tv, and in books, poor communication, unmet expectations, and fragile male ego were their downfall. Women are still expected to cook, clean, and have sex at a man’s whim while still bringing in the bacon and doing it in such a way that doesn’t make him feel threatened. The same expectations simply do not exist for men, a reminder that we’ve still got so much work to do in continuing the fight of Madam CJ Walker and the pioneering women of her day.
All in all, the limited series can only qualify as “good” in my book. Inspiring though it was, it had the potential to be so much better. For more on Madam CJ’s company and a look at the characters beyond what Netflix showed, be sure to read the articles popping up in trusted spaces, including Essence and O Magazine.