The newly bingeable Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker—written by Nicole Asher and produced by LeBron James and Harriet director Kasi Lemmons, among others—celebrates a benevolent, though at times self-destructively ambitious, brand of black female capitalism in the hair and beauty industry.
Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker, a black hair care entrepreneur often called the first self-made black woman millionaire, never actually became a millionaire in early 20th century America. By the time of her death in 1919, she had around $600,000 to her name (which would be about $8.9 million now)—still an astonishing amount of money for a black woman to possess in the Jim Crow era. It’s the “self-made” part that makes her story stand out: She was born free in Louisiana, and made her mark—and money—up north with very few resources at her disposal.
But in the midst of a global virus pandemic that is causing many to lose their jobs, be confined to their homes (if they have them), or risk their lives or others in order to stock groceries or care for patients, it’s even more difficult than usual to make sense of what is so uniquely uplifting about Walker’s story, which is modified and adapted in the Netflix series, hence “inspired by.”
Right now, the bosses aren’t so much the heroes as the workers—the ones who make it possible for the economy to move in the first place, as we find out at every dramatic economic downturn. Entrepreneurs are scrambling as quarantined customers reflect on the ruins of capitalism and follies of consumerism, and business owners are realizing (or admitting) that their enterprises are over-leveraged. But instead of shutting down, many of these businesses—corporate and upstart alike—are holding on by laying off vulnerable staff.
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Watching Self Made, I became more interested in the black women Walker (played by Octavia Spencer) enticed with her products, the ones struggling to make their way through a viciously racist society with their dignity intact, the perfect coif positioned on a head held high. Unfortunately, the show—which spans only four 45-minute episodes—does not share this interest, and rather spins Walker’s business-minded hustling into a fantasy of expansive empowerment. To be fair, the myth that the flourishing of black businesses will help all black people is one that has worked on a large swath of black communities in the U.S., who idolize millionaire and billionaire black entrepreneurs like Diddy, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Oprah.
As a result, bizarrely anachronistic or hyper-literal flourishes pop in and out of the narrative of the show, like a blaring Santigold song or Walker facing off in a fantasized boxing ring with her opponent of the day. But the anachronisms do not allow for new ideas or interpretations: Self Made operates on long-established clichés about black ownership and black female empowerment that refuse to examine blackness outside of a bourgeois heteronormative lens. This makes for a lean-in feminism jerry-rigged for black women of the 1900s, freshened up with a 2010s soundtrack. Blair Underwood plays the C.J. Walker to Octavia Spencer’s Madam—increasingly resentful of his hustling wife’s independence, emasculated not for the first time as a black man in a white-dominated country. You can probably guess the rest.
The real Walker worked as a washer woman before her success, and so when she made her money, became an avid philanthropist, hoping to create opportunity for young black women. Her charity largely went toward black schools and organizations in her community, and as a result, Walker is still beloved and celebrated in Indianapolis, where she built up her company. Walker’s philanthropy is often seen as proof that she was positively oriented toward the working class, but this reading elides the reality that, in order for Walker to have made so much money, it would’ve been necessary for her to believe that she was more deserving of the fruits of her labor than her factory employees.
The second episode of the series, actually called “Bootstraps,” finds Walker angling to secure wealthy black investors for her new factory and finally appealing to Booker T. Washington, the grandfather of black bootstraps theory—fitting not only for the obvious resonance with the cutthroat business world, but also because philanthropy is, in its way, a bootstraps method that furnishes restricted cash prizes in order to encourage the downtrodden to lift themselves up to the benefactor’s level.
Walker’s company shut down in 1981, and more recently, black hair care line Sundial Brands (the makers of SheaMoisture, sold at pharmacies and Targets everywhere) released a signature line dedicated to her called Inspired by the Legacy of C.J. Walker in partnership with Sephora, now called Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, with black hair care products available in the $20-30 range. Today, while more and more black entrepreneurs are making money off of broke and precariat black people looking for a trustworthy leave-in conditioner, economic independence certainly hasn’t spread to the workers around the world—not least to the ones tasked with making and packaging hair products. More fitting to our virus-stricken pandemonium might instead be Worker-Made: The Communities That Inspired Madam C.J. Walker.
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