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Dear Descendants: Madam C.J. Walker

The series Self Made on Netflix tells Madam Walker’s timeless story. It is not only inspiring, but it highlights the systemic challenges that women and minorities face as they work towards self-liberation and financial independence.

Apr 4, 2020

For some people, the constant emails, social media posts and message alerts about the Covid-19 pandemic are exactly what they need to keep up with the world. But for some of us, this content only induces anxiety. For me, films and books have been my solace. Although I often immerse myself in independent and world cinema, I have recently found myself exploring mainstream Hollywood genres on Netflix. My favorite new find has to be the mini-series Self-Made: Inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker. This series inspired me to remain determined regardless of the current uncertainties. I also appreciated its unconventional portrayal of Madam C.J, while also highlighting key systemic issues affecting women and racial minorities worldwide.
The series tells the story of Madam C.J. Walker, who is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in 1900s America. Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam Walker got her name from her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, who she married in 1906. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, she bears witness to the continued violence and discrimination of black people in the country, she was determined, like many others, to be independent and enroll her only daughter, A'Lelia Walker, in a formal school.
But things were not easy. For years, Madam Walker worked as a laundry woman, earning just enough for her survival. In fulfilling the responsibilities of such a tiresome job, Madam Walker did not have sufficient time to take care of herself. As a result, she suffered from severe dandruff and hair loss. The only available hair products and cosmetics, including those of Annie Malone — who later became her biggest business rival, did not cater to black women’s needs. And that is precisely what inspired Madam Walker to start her own business that provided the necessary hair treatments for black women.
In the series, Madam Walker is portrayed by the acclaimed Octavia Spencer, whose portrayal exceeds expectations. A'Lelia Walker, the protagonist’s only daughter, is portrayed by Tiffany Hadish, who brings her wit to the screen and shows us her dynamic acting skills. The series is directed, written and produced by black female artists, including Madam Walker’s real-life descendants. This series is produced by Kasi Lemmons, one of my favorite directors, notably of the 2019 film Harriet. This in itself means that the viewer is in for a story that celebrates all elements of the characters, but the focus of the series is not to glamorize Madam Walker’s struggle, or otherwise show her as a pitiful person struggling to make ends meet — a common trope in films about slavery. Instead, it focuses on her determination, experiences and ambition as much as it highlights her vulnerability and fears.
For instance, Madam Walker faces constant challenges in getting investors for her factory. In one of the scenes, she goes to a potential investor, a mortuary man, and asks him what would convince him to invest. What follows — a very traumatic incident indeed — is only implied when Madam Walker is shown walking back to her house with tears rolling down her cheeks. Memories of the violence she just endured flash on the screen as she recalls the incident to her father-in-law. He encourages her to keep trying regardless of such obstacles, thereby setting up Madam Walker’s next move to find an endorser for her products. Therefore, the filmmakers deliberately leave the audience with a stronger and more determined Madam Walker, simply by implying rather than presenting the source of her pain. The focus is then on what she does about her struggle, as opposed to the struggle itself, which eliminates the possibility of instigating pity and emotional disconnection from the audience.
I also appreciated the emphasis on the importance of community in contributing to Madam Walker’s success. As much as she inspired people with her business, she was also supported by a community of people who believed that her success would reflect positively on the community at large and provide opportunities for many. Understandably, the majority of this community was black, and Madam Walker is known to have been very active in the fight for racial justice and equality.
Additionally, the series does not shy away from opening up space for difficult conversations regarding patriarchy and feminism. As a wealthy business owner, Madam Walker was bound to face challenges in balancing her romantic life and her work. And this is a universal challenge, where a woman with a mind and business of her own is somehow a threat to her partner’s masculinity. A false notion of course, but one that is difficult to dismantle nonetheless, and one which leads to Madam Walker’s divorce.
For many reasons, Madam Walker’s story remains timeless. It is not only inspiring, but it highlights the systemic challenges that women, in general, continue to face as they work towards self-liberation and financial independence.
Ivy Akinyi is a columnist. Email her at
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