If you’ve never heard of Madam CJ Walker, you’re probably not alone. Not quite Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks in the Black History Month gallery of heroes, her achievements as America’s first female (self-made) millionaire have been largely underplayed until now.
Spread over four episodes, Self Made charts Walker’s rise from a downtrodden, widowed washerwoman to the gala-throwing millionaire she became. When we meet her, a chance meeting with local haircare entrepreneur Addie Munroe is about to change her life forever.
She is invited to work for Munroe, but not as a haircare sales rep: as a washerwoman. Deemed too dark and off-brand to champion Munroe’s products, Walker is devastated but uses her frustration to break away and set up her own business.
Having cornered the market in dowdy-yet-determined black women of yesteryear, Octavia Spencer stars as Walker as we rattle through her life at a speedy and polished pace. From the first shaky days of creating hair potions to the air-punching bit where she becomes the toast of New York, it’s all there, but this wouldn’t be Hollywood if it were all that simple.
As well as having to endure the resentment of a husband who feels emasculated by her success, her daughter’s sexuality is also a concern as it constantly threatens to destroy the status quo. But nothing compares to the stress of Walker’s life-long feud with her business rival Addie Munroe.
The adverts for Self Made make it clear that it is 'inspired by' rather than based on Walker’s life, a minor but important point given how liberal the show is with facts, and one fact in particular. Much of the drama comes from the battle between the dark-but-good Walker and her light-but-evil nemesis as Self Made relentlessly scratches away at the issue of colorism.
In reality, though, Walker’s story is not as clear cut. There is some dispute about whether Walker was the first female millionaire and there’s no actual record of her daughter’s lesbian relationships. But perhaps the biggest use of dramatic licence applies to Addie Munroe.
In the real world, Munroe (Carmen Ejogo) was called Annie Malone: a black (not mixed) woman who taught Walker everything about making haircare products. Already the wealthy owner of her own flourishing beauty business when she met Walker, Malone was nothing like the sad, light-skinned schemer Self Made makes her out to be.
From the banging soundtrack – which reads like a Who’s Who of hip black female artists – to its take on skin colour, Self Made is undoubtedly a 21st-century take on Walker’s life and you can see the appeal.
In an age where Kanye West can gloat about choosing light-skinned girls for his videos, skin colour is as big an issue as it was in the 1920s, but there’s a time and place. Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze (starring Self Made’s producer Kasi Lemmons) explored the world of colorism in an all-black college and it made perfect sense.
Setting dark against light in a skin shade clash which didn’t really happen makes less sense, especially given Walker’s jam-packed life. Born to former slaves, orphaned at 7, married at 14, married 3 times, Walker’s life of philanthropy and political causes had more than enough for Self Made to be going on with.
But it wasn’t to be. Despite the stellar cast (Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish and Blair Underwood) and LeBron James as co-producer, it’s a surprise to see Self Made turn out like this but then again, this is Hollywood – why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
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