Inside The Madam Walker Netflix Drama
“Hair is power.”
Those words help kick off the first episode of Netflix’s four-part miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. They also foreshadow a scene early on, which sets the tone for the entire story.
Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays earnest, hardworking Sarah Breedlove, a domestic servant washing other people’s clothes for pennies in the early 1900s. It’s years before she would gain fame as one of the wealthiest female business owners in the country, Madam C.J. Walker.
She’s in the St. Louis salon of Addie Monroe, played by the luminously beautiful Carmen Ejogo. Monroe has used her own hair-growth product to help Breedlove overcome a serious struggle with hair loss, trading tins of her scalp treatments for free laundry services. Breedlove sees Monroe as a friend and mentor, and has bold ideas for helping sell her products at a local street market. But when she tells Monroe she secretly “borrowed” a few tins to prove she could sell them on the street, Monroe is furious.
“Even in your Sunday best, you look like you just stepped off the plantation,” she screams, making it plain that she would never hire a dark-skinned, average-looking black woman to serve as ambassador for her high-quality hair-care products. Monroe, a light-skinned black woman, believes her fair complexion and long, flowing hair place her at a higher social station than her darker-skinned sister. At one point, she tells Breedlove: “Colored women will do anything to look like me—even if they know, deep down, that they can’t.”
The scene is set a few years before Breedlove would move to Indianapolis and create a company centered on cosmetics for black women, but her gambit hints at the ambition that would later fuel her success. Monroe’s outburst ends their friendship, prompting Breedlove to cook up her own formula for hair growth and establish a company to sell it—sparking a long rivalry that stretches from St. Louis to Indianapolis and beyond.
It’s the kind of origin story worthy of a comic-book superhero; dreams dashed by colorism and classism, the heroine puts those feelings of anger and shame to good use and forges a new identity that changes the world. But Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, the Indianapolis-raised author of the book on which the miniseries is based (On Her Own Ground), doesn’t see the narrative in quite the same way.
For one thing, the salon confrontation between Breedlove and Monroe never happened.
That’s because Addie Monroe is a fictional character, a thinly reworked version of one of the women who was an actual rival for Walker, Annie Malone. Malone was also a black woman who became a millionaire by founding her own successful hair-care and cosmetics company. She founded the first cosmetology school focused on African-American hair—music legend Chuck Berry reportedly studied there in the 1950s—and even gave Walker her start by hiring the former washerwoman to serve as a sales agent for her products in St. Louis and Denver in the early 1900s.
Unlike the fictional Addie Monroe, however, Malone was not a light-skinned woman, Bundles says. She did accuse Madam Walker of copying her hair-growth formula when she decided to strike out on her own. But their rivalry played out much differently than the in-your-face, colorism-filled argument that the Netflix miniseries presents.
Early drafts of the script featured the two women cursing at each other in ways that would never have happened, Bundles says. The finished miniseries toned down those moments, but in her view, still leaned toward melodrama. “I know Hollywood narratives exaggerate reality to create conflict and drama, but I was disappointed that the script defaulted to Madam Walker and Annie Malone cursing and fighting each other,” Bundles says “It felt like a clichéd way to show their competition with each other.”
Nicole Jefferson Asher, credited as writer and co-executive producer of Self Made, says the Addie Monroe character allowed the miniseries flexibility to tackle a lot of issues that surrounded Walker’s rise—from struggles with rivals to colorism in the black community—in a way that would speak to modern viewers. The miniseries features other fictional characters, invented moments, and a few surreal fantasy sequences.
“In order to tell a larger story, we had to fictionalize some aspects of it,” says Asher. “That’s what helps the story resonate and feel contemporary to today’s audience. You know, female entrepreneurship, female competition, colorism—these are things that we as a society are just now really talking about. But Madam C.J. Walker was dealing with these issues a hundred years ago.”
Given that Walker is a figure who already has a few myths attached to her name—she did not, for example, invent the hot comb or chemical perms, though both innovations are often credited to her—Bundles remains concerned about some of the liberties Self Made takes with her story. But the producers insist that viewers are savvy enough to expect some dramatization, and that the series will encourage further curiosity about Walker’s life.
“One of the great things about the time we’re living in is that people can actually go to Google and look her up,” Asher says. “I hope this inspires them to ask, ‘Did that really exist? How did that happen?’ And to find out more.”
Netflix’s miniseries comes at the end of a long road for A’Lelia Bundles. Named after Madam Walker’s daughter A’Lelia Walker, Bundles often traveled to her mother’s office on Indiana Avenue as a child when her mom served as vice president of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis. Walker’s legacy surrounded her back then. The family silverware bore the matriarch’s monogram, and Bundles learned to read music at a baby grand piano once owned by her namesake and great-grandmother.
But it wasn’t until Bundles was studying journalism in graduate school at Columbia University in the mid-1970s that she considered telling her family’s story more directly, urged by an instructor to make it the focus of her masters thesis. “My mother was terminally ill at that point with lung cancer, and when I went home for Christmas, we talked about what I was doing and the research,” Bundles says. “She gave me her blessing to tell the full story. I told her, ‘I’m finding things that don’t fit, that aren’t part of the myth.’ She said, ‘Tell the truth, baby.’ So that was one of our last conversations, and it was a gift to me.”
Bundles, who has worked as a producer and executive at ABC and NBC, eventually wrote four books about Walker’s legacy. But it was On Her Own Ground that gave her greatest prominence as an authority on Walker’s history, drawing interest from a long line of production companies hoping to make a film or TV project based on the book, which was published in 2001.
The first company to option the book was Columbia TriStar in 2000, while Bundles was still writing it. They hoped to make a movie for CBS, and actress Whoopi Goldberg was involved, presumably to star as Walker. Bundles remembers a particular meeting on the project, with Goldberg sitting in by phone, where the author felt compelled to weigh in on how black men were depicted in the script.
“The men in the script were all, like, drunks and just sort of incompetent,” she says. “I said, ‘You know, this bothers me, especially because one of her brothers was her rock and biggest supporter before he died.’ And one of the white executives said, ‘Well, that’s not really a big deal.’ And Whoopi Goldberg, to her credit, said ‘Well, I think it’s a big deal and I don’t think we should do that.’ So I was grateful.”
However, the CBS movie never got made. HBO optioned the book for a project that also never was produced. Then, Bundles says, Hollywood seemed to decide that films featuring black characters wouldn’t draw non-black audiences, so interest cooled. But in the mid-2010s, movies such as 12 Years a Slave, Selma, and The Butler changed producers’ minds about the popularity of stories on black historical figures, and interest picked up again.
A few years ago, Bundles took a meeting with an executive named Mark Holder which left her convinced her input as a consultant would be respected. Holder met with Octavia Spencer, who expressed interest in not only playing Madam Walker, but serving as an executive producer, which excited Bundles—it couldn’t hurt the program’s prospects to have an Oscar-winner on the team. And, eventually, basketball star LeBron James’s company SpringHill Entertainment also came on board as producers, with James and CEO Maverick Carter named executive producers.
But when Bundles spoke on the phone with the co-producer Asher to hear her ideas about the story, and realized she planned to develop an Annie Malone–style character as a major rival to Walker, the author objected. She didn’t want to see the story rendered as a melodrama in the vein of nighttime soap operas like Fox’s Empire.
“I was told many times that this is not a documentary,” Bundles says. “I worked in television news for decades, so I get that. But there were women in Madam Walker’s life who were her mentors—a schoolteacher who helped her learn to read, a former dean of girls at a black school in Kentucky, who became the factory manager and traveling companion. I was concerned that there was no close girlfriend, no mentor, no person in the story who helps us see her transform. I just wish there had been a stronger female friendship.”
Bundles’s objections didn’t slow the production down, however. And there was a lot to like about the team. As plans progressed, the cast added an impressive roster of actors. Blair Underwood plays Walker’s third husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker. Tiffany Haddish is her daughter, A’Lelia Walker. And Saturday Night Live alum Garrett Morris plays another fictionalized character, C.J.’s father, an emancipated slave named Cleophus.
On TV projects, the person with the top creative and management authority is called the “showrunner”—the top producer who oversees all writing and production decisions. Self Made has two black women serving as co-showrunners—Elle Johnson and Janine Sherman Barrois. Working alongside Asher, the showrunners ensured that the top producers working on the project were all black women.
“We had a shorthand with each other,” says Johnson, noting that they didn’t have to over-explain concepts like colorism or black women’s relationship with their hair, because they each understood such issues personally. “You could say things and know that it would be taken in the spirit in which it was intended.”
“One of the things we wanted to do with those relationships was have the freedom to not make everyone be so damn good,” she adds. “Sometimes, when black folks are telling our stories, we feel like we can’t make complex characters because of wanting to make everyone seem good and a straight arrow. I kind of love that these characters get to be messy. They’re flawed. They’re human.”
Self Made stands out for its focus on a black woman whose persistence, smarts, and instinct for innovation helped her build a business empire—a type of role still too rarely seen across today’s TV landscape. Bundles, however, was disappointed it focused so much on colorism. Johnson defends the decision to include conflicts over skin tone so prominently, saying “I don’t think you can tell the story without addressing it, especially when you’re talking about Madam C.J. Walker and how she wanted to explore the full range of beauty for black women. That was one of the things that was so important to her in terms of uplifting the race, uplifting black women and giving them an opportunity to not only have jobs that took them out of strictly domestic work, but also made them feel beautiful about who they were and what they are.”
Barrois, who balanced working on the TNT drama Claws with helping to produce Self Made, says some characters were created in order to allow the story to address certain issues facing black people in the early 1900s. There’s a character named Sweetness, a bet-taking bookie played by Bill Bellamy. He’s depicted as a relative of Walker’s longtime lawyer Freeman Ransom, who actually existed. In the story, Ransom raises money to help build Walker’s first factory by playing numbers with Sweetness. Later, Sweetness lands in a subplot about lynching.
“We needed a character to dramatize some of the conceits we wanted to include,” Barrois says. “We can’t say Madam C.J. Walker literally knew this numbers runner. We can’t say Madam C.J. Walker literally knew the story of what happened with Sweetness. But what we can say is that she knew people like this.”
But Bundles says Ransom—who in real life was a rigidly moral person who had vowed as a child not to smoke, drink, or dance—would never have gambled to raise money for Walker’s business. “Why, when you have the opportunity to show black people differently than Hollywood so often portrays them,” she says, “would you default to the clichés and the stereotypes?”
Madam Walker only lived in Indianapolis for about six years. But by establishing the city as her early headquarters, she ensured it would be part of her legend, even beyond her death. She moved to Indy in 1910 from Denver, drawn by the city’s thriving black business community, which included three weekly newspapers. The city also served as an important crossroads for train travel, which helped develop Walker’s mail-order business and spread word about her products.
Walker parlayed her business into a powerhouse operation, building a factory and salon behind her home on West Street to manufacture her system of products. The facility allowed her to train a group of agents in cosmetology techniques at a time when black women didn’t have many options for beauty products designed for them. She took out ads in black newspapers like the Indianapolis Freeman, which would then be circulated across the country by Pullman porters. And she had an impact beyond the business world, donating $1,000 to help build the Senate Avenue YMCA.
“That was the largest gift any black woman had ever given to that kind of cause,” Bundles says. “And that catapulted her into being not just a community leader in Indianapolis, but on the national stage among African Americans.”
As her business grew, Walker envisioned a grand headquarters on Indiana Avenue—once an epicenter of the city’s black community—but she died from complications of hypertension at the age of 52, eight years before its completion in 1927. That building is now known as the Madam Walker Legacy Center, a historic landmark.
The MWLC will complete a two-year, $15 million renovation this year, reopening with a theater, ballroom, and retail and event space. When asked about some of the changes to Madam Walker’s story in Self Made, MWLC president Judith Thomas chooses her words carefully. “If anything, the Netflix series will hopefully generate more interest in Madam Walker,” she says. “And young women will say, ‘If she could do that 100 years ago, maybe I could do the same thing today.’ That’s why everyone in Indianapolis is so excited about the miniseries. No matter what the show is like, people know where they can come to get the facts.”
For Asher, the Self Made producer, the Indianapolis connection provided an opportunity to talk about the Great Migration of black people from plantations and farms in the South to industrial jobs in Northern states. “I was excited to actually show black people moving from the South to the Midwest, seeking their fortunes,” she says. “We’ve seen how the Midwest was settled by white people, but we haven’t really seen what that meant for black people. It was important to show that black people were really savvy about the opportunities and pursuing them. Self Made depicts Indianapolis as a booming, thriving, brand-new city. It’s the beginning of the Industrial Age.”
Alert viewers will notice that Self Made wasn’t actually filmed in Indianapolis. Production took place in Canada, where many TV shows take advantage of tax breaks and other production incentives. Asher says recreating the Indianapolis of 1910 would have been challenging anywhere, given the difficulty in finding buildings from that era. Areas around Toronto offered the cobblestone streets and architecture they needed.
Nevertheless, the show captures how black people in Indiana began to build wealth after the end of the Civil War and slavery. “It’s really about how black people’s lives changed,” Asher says. “Women are becoming more upwardly mobile and can afford to do things like go to the salon or get their hair done. People are starting to have indoor plumbing and can take care of themselves and their hair in a different way. These are the things that Madam Walker saw and was able to capitalize on. This is part of the uplift of black people in the early 20th century.”
Bundles, who is completing a book about her great-grandmother A’Lelia Walker, says she’s still glad that the Netflix miniseries was made, despite the historical inaccuracies. She appreciates that some of the most over-the-top drama was toned down, and that the producers at least listened to her concerns. Like the showrunners and the MWLC, Bundles hopes viewers are inspired to pick up nonfiction sources on Madam Walker’s life and legacy.
“It is amazing to have the story of a black woman told in four parts with a cast of well-known actors and so much devotion from people behind the scenes. I respect the hard work that so many people have done,” she says. “But I also feel an obligation to tell Madam Walker’s story and who she really was. I’ve spent decades trying to tell this story and to dispel the myths. And I do feel there will be a new set of myths created about her after this show airs.”