I did something fun while researching this. A few friends and I did a scheduled Netflix showing of this while we all stayed connected on-line: like going to the movies together while in isolation. So glad they chose this. Also, we were able to get instant feedback from each person’s perspective.
Octavia Spencer played Madam CJ Walker. Couldn’t think of a better actress to give CJ her day on the screen. Both Black History Month and Women’s International Day sang CJ’s praises. She was splendid. She pushed the envelope and raised the culture, all through her ability to see a need and produce it.
Much has been written about her, but it’s taken 100 years after her death, in 1919, to get her incredible story onto the screen. And because this is Netflix, they did it right by making it a 4-part series, so to tell her story. We all gave it a thumbs up and recommend it highly, knowing it was an adaptation with embellishments.
A woman, born Sarah Breedlove to recently-freed slaves, becomes a teenage mother and struggles with hair loss before developing a line of African American hair products so successful, she becomes America’s first female millionaire and, because she has chutzpah, John D. Rockefeller’s New York neighbor.
Her hair loss: her first husband grew tired of her and called her a mangy dog. Her depression kept her down. Then one day, a lady came to her door, sees her, and sees her balding hair loss. She offers to help Sarah by giving her scalp treatments in return for laundry work. Once her hair starts to fill in, she begins to feel more confidence. It is this that gives her an “Ah-ha” moment, how her and her people have struggled with their hair.
The show, adapted from Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles’ book “On Her Own Ground” and directed by black women (DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons), features plenty of hot combs, colorful coat dresses and dreamlike imagery in a tale of a woman who is “a shining example of black excellence,” Spencer says. The story itself, was an adaptation of the book and used creative license to further the story.
She watched others come to her employer, Addie Munroe’s door, to get hair treatments and other “light skinned” girls who wanted to be like Addie, who was pretty and well dressed. These hand-picked girls were door to door saleswomen for Addie’s “hair grow” product. When Sarah asks to sell the jars, using her own experiences with the product, she is told by Addie that she doesn’t have the right look, is too dark skinned.
So, Sarah starts to develop her own hair grow product, with the help of her daughter. From here the story gets good, embellished beyond facts.
Here we have Addie Munroe, the competitor better known as Annie Turnbo Malone and who deserves her own recognition, Sarah’s daughter A’Lelia, who would become her successful heir apparent and will become her own post, and Madam Walker’s real attorney, Freeman Ransom, a graduate of Columbia University law school. As Self Made puts forth, he was not only her lawyer, but also the general manager of her manufacturing company. His business acumen is responsible for building the company into the success it became and securing her divorce from CJ, retaining the name.
These were the main players, besides her third husband, CJ Walker, who was not as successful in marketing as he pretended to be. The series didn’t go into the period between 1905 and 1908, the Annie Malone period, during her product development in Denver, and in Pittsburg, where she eventually built her factory. After moving from St. Louis to CJ’s family home in Indianapolis, her name started to become known and she began to make a meager amount of money. Her community began to call her Madam CJ Walker.
In comes Addie, who also moved from St. Louis to Indianapolis, with a new shop on main street (not a factual event) . This is when Sarah decides to buy a factory to move her business out of the family home after an accidental fire. Investors. Her business partner gathered up some local interest, but…because she was a woman, they thought her incompetent to run a factory. Not to be deterred, Sarah tried to get the interest of Booker T Washington to endorse her. Same put downs, but not before she exalted the educated wife’s of those business leaders in the room. They would never speak up on their own, but admired Sarah for saying it.
With her option on the factory about to go into default, she asks her husband to mortgage his family home for her factory. Being a black man in the south, his ego needed her to include him in the business decisions and this was a last straw to his ego and soon he would stray, with one of Sarah’s best saleswoman. Before defaulting, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), came a knocking and gave her investment money. These were the same women who she had exalted at the business leader meeting. They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.
As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.
In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics but also trained sales beauticians. These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African Americans.
A relentless innovator, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African Americans. After her death, Sarah’s daughter A’Leila, continued to expand her mother’s legacy. Sarah wanted a granddaughter to carry on her legacy, and because A’Leila was said to be interested in women, she instead “adopted” a beautiful young hair model girl named Fairy Mae, by promising Mae’s mother she would continue her education and train her in business. During this period, Madam CJ and her daughter had relocated to New York City, where A’Leila opened a hair salon called the “Dark Tower.” It became a Harlem mainstay for many years. Sarah built her mansion and had Rockefeller as a neighbor. The year was 1918, the year of the pandemic Spanish Flu.
This is where another story will emerge; that of A’Leila and her daughter Mae. Madam CJ’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, played an important role in her mother’s business and was a successful businesswoman and philanthropist of her own. Stay tuned for part two of this inspirational true- life story.