Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. That’s a fact that many people most likely learn as a quick black history fact.
But the nuances of her extraordinary life, and the context of how amazing it is that she managed to thrive and build an empire in a time when black people were just emerging from slavery–when women couldn’t even vote–runs a lot deeper than a basic school history lesson.
On Friday, Netflix premieres Self Made, a four-episode limited series inspired by the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, a biography about Walker’s life written by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved. She was the first person in her family who was born free, just after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“One of the key things for me about Madame Walker’s life is that she really does represent this first generation out of slavery when black people were reinventing themselves, and as a woman who was the first child in her family born free, she was trying to figure out a way, and she moved from Delta, Louisiana,” Bundles tells Fast Company. “She was orphaned at seven, moved in with an older sister, and her brother-in-law abused her. So she got married at 14. I think the film says she was a mother at 15. She was a mother at 17, and then her husband died when she was 20.”
Breedlove and her daughter relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1880s to escape racial violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Her older brothers were barbers there, and she learned haircare from them while also working menial jobs to make money. She got involved in her church, where she sang in the choir and learned a lot about women’s empowerment.
“You know the AME Church has a history of empowering black people and having an international outlook. So it was the women of the church who began to give Sarah Breedlove an image of herself as something other than an illiterate washerwoman, and she wanted to make her life better, and her daughter’s life better,” says Bundles. “She was exposed to the middle-class women and the club movement. The club movement is portrayed in the film. In reality, these women were highly educated and in many ways, very militant about their rights.”
Eventually, Breedlove began losing her hair. She took what she learned from her brothers and from working for Annie Malone, another haircare entrepreneur (who inspired the character Addie Monroe in the series), and began to create her own products. She took on the name Madam C.J. Walker in honor of her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, who helped her build her brand, which empowered black women and black families, and she pioneered the direct-sales business model that has become a popular way for many consumer products to proliferate, particularly in cosmetics and personal care.
Fast Company caught up with the cast–Spencer, as well as Blair Underwood, who plays C.J. Walker, and Bill Bellamy, who plays the character Sweetness–and Bundles to discuss how Walker’s extraordinary life of entrepreneurship and activism at the intersection of racism and sexism still resonates more than a century later.
There’s so much to unpack about Madam C.J. Walker’s life, but in summary, Self Made was a really good visual representation of black feminist theory, with Madam Walker at the intersections of racism, classism, sexism, and colorism. Talk about the elements of her life that were most important to play out in this project.
Octavia Spencer: For me it was not necessarily [specific] points, because we have four episodes, and Madam lived a varied life. I was just inclined to make sure that A’Lelia, her great-great-granddaughter, whose book we based the story on–that being the legacy of Madam, she was happy with what we’re doing.
It felt like I was watching something that is still a very modern story, especially when you recognize that so much of her business model has impacted a lot of the beauty industry today and how much she fought for herself.
Spencer: Madam understood female enterprise. She wasn’t limited. She wanted the black families to thrive, but the men of her time did not feel that women should have an equal voice. They felt that the women were there to elevate men, and Madam had a different notion of who she was and what women could accomplish. The fact that she allowed women to be their own bosses so they wouldn’t be in servitude, and they could have their own stakes and create their own destinies, was so important. It’s important, because she created that wealth by creating black beauty products for black women, and in doing so she gave us our voice. She empowered us, and I think we are still using those voices today.
A’Lelia Bundles: She would have been an Instagram girl. She advertised extensively in the black newspapers, which were national newspapers. She used before-and-after advertisements. She knew how to identify leaders in her sales force as she traveled around the country. She would go to visit church basements and lodges, and they would do a lecture. She had something called a stereopticon, which was like a PowerPoint presentation, and she didn’t just talk about hair. She talked about politics and what was going on in the education of the black community to a large audience, and then she would have a smaller group of 10 to 15 women afterwards and talk about becoming a Walker agent, and she would identify the woman who asked the best questions and the one who others gravitated toward, and that’s who she would make the lead agent in that town. Then she’d move on to the next town, and when she was establishing her company, what we now call “the C-suite”–she identified people who were highly talented, like F.B. Ransom, who’s portrayed in the film. He was the person who crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s so that she could be the visionary and be on the road. She hired a woman named Alice Kelly, who had been the dean of girls at a black boarding school in Kentucky, and made her the manager of the factory, but also her private tutor. So there were things that Madam Walker did that elevated her within her systems and her infrastructure, and then one other key piece of her success was that her daughter persuaded her to move to Harlem in 1913, when Harlem was becoming the center of black culture and politics. That meant they were written about not just in the black newspapers but in The New York Times.
She also had a complicated relationship with men, especially her husband. He loved her but also felt emasculated by her success. She loved him but couldn’t be the docile yes-woman he wanted. The gender dynamics were major and the tension still felt very modern.
Bundles: What you see in the series is the essence of how it happened, but there’s an interview that she did with someone and she said, “When I began to make $10 a day, my husband thought that was enough and due to his narrowness of vision we parted ways.” The Dora Larrie affair was very real, and her discovering them really happened too. But she didn’t tell the reporter her husband was having an affair with someone. She made the “due to his narrowness of vision” comment. So that was a shade of a very sophisticated kind. They just said things differently. They were still throwing shade. They were still having great conflicts, but it just didn’t devolve into some of the stuff that happens now.
Bellamy: [I have more] appreciation and respect for what women go through and what hurdles women are still overcoming. As a guy, you always think women are doing well, because it looks like y’all are working and doing everything we’re doing, but it’s still not all the way equal. Just think back then, how she was able to do it, and she didn’t even have any of the opportunities you guys have? So what would be the excuse? I hope women see this and feel good about themselves and feel supported. C.J. was trying to do that to the best of his ability, but her ambitions were bigger than his dreams, and that became a conflict. They weren’t able to figure out the balance, because the dream overtook the relationship; it overtook their lives and they got lost.
Blair Underwood: He felt emasculated. I don’t think he felt intimidated by her. There were other men who felt intimidated by her, but C.J. loved her tremendously. He admired her, he respected her. He helped her build the company. It’s harder and much more interesting to play and portray when this complexity is in that somebody’s becoming more successful than you are in the eyes of the world and in reality. It’s easy if you don’t like that person. It’s easy if they intimidate you. It’s easy if you don’t have a strong relationship. It’s much more fascinating and complex if you want that person to win and you adore that person, because then you’re dealing with those demons inside of yourself. Why can’t I support her more? Why am I snapping? Why am I angry? Why am I going to the bottle? Why am I trying to self-medicate? Why can’t I deal with this strong woman that I want to be successful? That’s much more interesting than “I’m intimidated, so I’m just going to be an asshole.” It’s still a very modern-day story, and that’s what I love about it, because so many of us can relate to that in our own relationships, or relationships around us that we’ve observed.
What do you hope people watching this will take away from this series?
Spencer: I hope we introduce them to Madam. We only have four hours to do it, and our story only covers 1918. Madam was close to 50 when she passed away, so she had a lot more that we weren’t able to tell. I think we introduce her, but I hope people will take a deeper dive and learn more about her.
Underwood: Just objectively look at the success that she had as a business person. The gender of it is remarkable and is notable, but I hope when men look at this they hopefully see her journey and say if she could do it–because the playing field still isn’t equal today for men and women–if she could do that as a black woman in the late 1800s, then we all have no excuses.