Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, who brought Harriet Tubman’s story to the big screen, surprises us again with the four-part Netflix miniseries, Self Made. Inspired by the life of Madam CJ Walker, it is produced and starring Octavia Spencer and recounts CJ Walker’s rise from a poor childhood in the Southern United States to becoming, in the early 1900s, in a great business mogul, super successful, manufacturing and selling a range of cosmetics and hair care products, made specifically for black women.
But who was Madam CJ Walker?
Entrepreneurship, philanthropist and activist, Madam C.J. Walker came out of poverty to become one of the richest African American women of his time. She also used her position to advocate for and fight for African-American advancement and contributed decisively to ending their lynching.
Born as Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, at a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, she was one of the six sons of Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, former slaves converted into sharecroppers after the Civil War. Orphaned at seven years, Walker lived with his older sister, Louvenia, and both worked in cotton fields. Partly to escape her abusive brother-in-law, at the age of 14 Walker married Moses McWilliams. When her husband died, in 1887, she became a single mother to the two-year-old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia).
Sustaining to get out of poverty, in 1889, Walker moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her four brothers worked in the barber trade. There, she also worked as a washerwoman and cook.
She joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she met various black leaders, men and women, whose education and success also inspired her. In 1894, he married John Davis, but the marriage was very problematic and the couple later divorced.
Struggling financially, facing hair loss and feeling the strain on his body from years of physical work, Walker’s life took a pivot in 1904. That year, not only did she start using “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” by African-American entrepreneur Annie Turbo Malone, a great hair product, but she also joined Malone’s team of black women sales agents.
A year later, Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married publicist Charles Joseph Walker, and renamed herself “Mrs. CJ Walker” and at just $1.25, launched her own hair product line for African-American women, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower”.
Initially, CJ Walker’s husband helped her with advertising and setting up and promoting the business through mail orders. After the couple divorced, in 1910, she moved to Indianapolis and built the Walker Manufacturing Company. An advocate for the economic independence of black women, she opened training programs in the Walker System for her national network of licensed sales agents, which garnered large commissions and profits. An advocate for the economic independence of black women, she opened training programs in the Walker System for her national network of licensed sales agents, which garnered large commissions and profits. Finally, CJ Walker employed 40,000 African-American women and men in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. He also founded the National Association of Black Cosmetic Manufacturers in 1917.
Walker’s business grew rapidly, with sales exceeding $500,000 in the last year of his life. Its total value exceeded one million dollars, an amount absolutely unthinkable at the time and acquired a mansion in Irvington, New York, called “Villa Lewaro”, and also properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
As her wealth increased, so did her work and philanthropic and political scope. Walker contributed to the YMCA, covering tuition for six African-American students at the Tuskegee Institute and was tremendously active in the anti-lynching movement, donating $5,000 for NAACP efforts. Just before she died of kidney failure, Walker reviewed her will, bequeathing two-thirds of future net proceeds to charity, as well as thousands of dollars.
Self-Made is not, as it could have been, a documentary, but is an entertainment series that shows how difficult it was for a black woman, and more coming from poverty, starting a business and turning it into a success. An excellent work by Octavia Spencer in portraying Madam Walker’s courage and tenacity. You can’t miss it.