Netflix Series On Madame CJ Walker Blasted By Critics

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Written by Ann Brown
Walker
The much-anticipated Netflix series on self-made Black millionaire Madame CJ Walker is blasted by critics and some Netflix viewers. Portrait of Madam C. J. Walker taken in 1915. Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center.

Many people were excited to hear about a new Netflix series, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, which highlights the success of the businesswoman, but some people were unimpressed by the series itself.

For those who don’t know, Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to formerly enslaved sharecroppers. She built herself up by creating her own Black women’s hair-care empire. When she died in 1919, she was one of the country’s wealthiest female entrepreneurs, employing some 25,000 sales agents.

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The feedback on the Netflix four-part drama isn’t great. In the series, Octavia Spencer portrays Walker. As Time magazine pointed out, “…the decision to focus on the last decade of her life is the most confusing. Instead of taking viewers through Walker’s extraordinary formative experiences, Octavia Spencer’s Sarah summarizes that story Wikipedia-style over flashbacks that open the first episode. What’s left is the business of building a business—which would be hard to dramatize under any circumstances but in this case suffers particularly from clumsy, cliché-ridden scripts.”

Brushed off as being like a “soap opera,” the series was inspired by a 2002 book, “On Her Own” — a biography by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.

Kasi Lemmons of “Harriet” and “Eve’s Bayo,” directed two episodes of the Netflix series. Among the drama’s 10 executive producers are Spencer, Lemmons, and NBA star LeBron James, who fought for Spencer to be paid more for the role.

“Despite the many powerful people behind the film, “Self Made” sensationalizes the life of Walker in petty, familiar ways that seem designed to ramp up drama by hewing to ugly stereotypes about black women — a curious choice, since she experienced plenty of interesting and unexpected drama in her 51 years,” Time reported.

Walker
This Oct. 19, 1998 file photo shows the Villa Lewaro, century-old Italianate-style mansion that was the home of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur considered to be the nation’s first self-made female millionaire, in Irvington, N.Y. The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018, that Villa Lewaro was bought by Richelieu Dennis and his family. The price wasn’t released. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey, File)

A review by NBC News also pointed out the lack of attention to Walker’s early life, “giving the impression that she was simply a striving capitalist instead of a woman who transcended abject poverty (based on her gender and race) in search of a life for her daughter that didn’t involve the backbreaking labor of being a washerwoman.”

The series also ignored Walker’s influence beyond her business. 

“The real Walker was a businesswoman, yes — but she was also a philanthropist who made it clear that her immense wealth would serve to uplift her race, as well as a political activist who campaigned against lynching, sued an Indianapolis movie theater for charging Blacks more for admission than whites and was spied on by the FBI. As one of the nation’s richest women — Black or white — at a time when women’s right to own property at all varied by state and marital status, Walker helped her female sales agents earn significantly more money than they would have as domestic workers and encouraged them, too, to take up political causes,” NBC News reported. 

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The NBC News review also touched on the misrepresentation of Walker’s relationship with her real-life business rival Annie Malone (played by Carmen Ejogo), who is described as a “light, bright” biracial woman with wavy “good hair” tresses.

Viewers went to Twitter to complain about the portrayal of this rivalry. “… this dramatized rivalry between her and “Addie” (Annie) Malone. It ain’t true and it’s kinda shitting on the legacy of the 1st self-made Black millionaire (Malone),” one person tweeted.

Another tweeted: “I’ve done reports on both Annie Malone & Madame CJ Walker. The fact that they are tarnishing Annie’s name and legacy makes me sick. Why couldn’t both be portrayed in a positive light? She’s a real person not some made-up character. This is wrong, very wrong. #SelfMadeNetflix.”