Coronavirus binge-watching these days doesn’t need to be limited to guilty pleasures like “The Mandalorian” and “Tiger King.”
On Netflix, the new miniseries “Self Made” tells the compelling, true-life story of Madam C. J. Walker, who should have been the hands-down favorite to be the first woman whose portrait would grace American paper money. Unfortunately, she was overlooked altogether.
Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Born to recently freed slaves, the ambitious Walker rose from humble beginnings of picking cotton and washing clothes for pennies to founding and running her own factory, salons, beauty school, and hair care business.
Motivated by her own pattern baldness, and utilizing her experience as a traveling saleswoman for another hair care entrepreneur, Walker developed her own hair treatment for black women and marketed it around the South as the “Walker Method.” She expanded her business with “Walker Agents”—giving well-paid, much-needed and empowering jobs to the same black women who were her customers.
Walker, who died a millionaire in her early 50s, became a prominent philanthropist. She supported the musicians, writers, and artists who led the Harlem Renaissance. She was an early and generous donor to the NAACP and efforts to combat lynching. She was also instrumental in preserving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Octavia Spencer—who won both an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for her role in the 2011 movie “The Help”—does a masterful job playing Walker. Not the typical flashy Hollywood star, Spencer provides a portrayal that brims with the determination and heart Walker embodied to be able to succeed in that era.
“Self Made” is up-front in declaring that it is “inspired by” Walker’s life story, and that is important to note. After all, historical records from that time aren’t extensive—particularly for black Americans. And besides, Hollywood can’t help itself when it comes to embellishment.
Walker’s on-screen business rival is based on a real-life competitor, but the intensity of the rivalry and some of the confrontations are fictional. Another character (no spoilers!) is presented as an out-and-proud lesbian, yet the author of the book upon which the series was based—who is a direct descendent of that person—told O, The Oprah Magazine that “[w]hat is portrayed in the series is certainly not something that really happened.” The series also wrongly implies that Walker sided with the socialist W. E. B. Du Bois over the capitalist Booker T. Washington, when she simply wanted her entrepreneurship to “advance the race.”
That being said, the series spectacularly heralds entrepreneurship. It shows Walker finding her motivation (“hair is power”), selling her products, doggedly seeking investors and promoting self-reliance in the black community. There’s even a scene showing the importance of guns for self-defense.
Walker was honored on a postage stamp in 1998. But those lobbying to put a woman on paper money totally ignored her—instead promoting feminist icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt and already-celebrated heroes such as Rosa Parks. The woman who will eventually go on the $20 bill is abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
In a 2015 commentary for Project 21, I appealed for Walker to be the new face on our money:
[W]hy not make a bold choice—one that’s free of a political agenda? . . .
Walker persevered in a male-dominated era where separate-but-equal Jim Crow discrimination was the law of the land. She saw how other businesses ignored black customers, and she stepped in to fill the void and became a success.
The story of Madam C. J. Walker, as portrayed in Netflix’s “Self Made,” is inspiring, motivating and definitely binge-worthy. And, for older kids currently out of school, it’s a great history lesson they likely wouldn’t ever hear in a classroom.