Netflix’s ‘Self Made’ suffers from self-inflicted wounds
The series about hair care mogul Madam C.J. Walker opted for made-up melodrama rather than the dramatic truth
Finally, after decades of writing about my great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, I was about to see her story come alive on Netflix. And what timing! America was ending the first full week of COVID-19 lockdown in March. What could be a better distraction than Self Made, the limited series starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer? Having LeBron James’ Springhill Entertainment with executive producer credit added cachet. By that Monday, enough people had binge-watched all four episodes that Self Made was Netflix’s No. 1 show.
Friends who’d read my books and heard my speeches about Walker were excited for me. Aspiring entrepreneurs — stuck at home and worried about being laid off — were so pumped that they vowed to reactivate their side hustles. My Instagram account overflowed with messages in Portuguese from Brazilian fans.
They were as mesmerized as I had been when the camera zoomed in on Spencer kneeling over a washtub and scrubbing laundry. “Seems like I was born to struggle,” she sighed. Just as I’d hoped, Spencer captured the spirit of Sarah Breedlove, the poor laundress who was to become Madam Walker, the philanthropic millionaire and founder of an international hair care empire. She’d given flesh and feeling to the paragraphs I’d written 20 years earlier for On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
Among other things, I loved the wigs and the visual evolution of Breedlove’s hairstyles from tattered and patchy to healthy and full, especially because I’d seen so many wack Afros and raggedy weaves in other movies. I smiled when the screen filled with prosperous, beautifully dressed African Americans in fancy mansions and at business conventions, because so few people had any idea that wealthy black people even existed during the early 1900s.
During my one day on set in Toronto last September, I’d seen DeMane Davis direct Spencer in two emotionally exacting scenes. Kevin Carroll brought dignity and depth to the role of Freeman B. Ransom, attorney and general manager for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. I knew many women shared my delight that Blair Underwood played Spencer’s love interest, Charles Joseph Walker. Just as important, I’d appreciated it when he reached out to me by phone a few weeks earlier for extra insight into C.J. Walker.
At a private screening in Los Angeles in January, I was reminded of how hard the actors and production staff had worked. I knew it was rare to have all black women as showrunners, directors, director of cinematography, production manager and head writer. I understood that it was a minor miracle when any project made it from book to script to screen, and all the more so when the main character and most of the cast are black.
As the March premiere date approached, the coronavirus pandemic loomed. The much-anticipated screenings at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington and at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles were canceled. On March 12, a few hours after Spencer, Underwood and I had wrapped up interviews with Entertainment Tonight, The Root, BlackFilm.com and O, The Oprah Magazine, plus a dozen other media outlets, Broadway went dark. We’d squeaked in our promotion day marathon with minutes to spare.
After 30 years as a network television news producer, I understood the importance of those interviews and of doing my part to help launch the series in the most favorable way. I was sincere and intentional in my desire to honor the efforts of the cast and crew who’d been so devoted to lifting up Walker’s legacy.
But as I responded to the reporters’ questions, I also was having moments of cognitive dissonance. I knew they wanted to know what I thought. Did I love it? Was I excited?
As I measured my words, I thought about the Madam Walker fans I’d come to know during five decades of researching and writing about her. The junior high school students who’d created award-winning National History Day projects. The cosmetologists who’d collected thousands of signatures for our successful Walker postage stamp campaign in 1998. The scholars whose doctoral dissertations had become books. I knew they were expecting an authentic and inspirational story. Although it was a fictional Hollywood dramatization and not a documentary, I knew they expected some fidelity to the broad strokes of history. And I knew that was not what they were going to get.
I also knew that my discomfort, if I voiced it at that moment, might have turned into a headline that harmed the premiere. The wiser course of action, it seemed to me, was to let viewers draw their own conclusions before I offered my public critique.
All the while, I was bracing myself.
For more than three years, I’d been part of a complex and frustrating dance as my nonfiction, fact-based material was translated from book to movie by scriptwriters whose visions, goals and sensibilities often were quite different from mine.
That first weekend, as heart and flame emojis cascaded across Instagram, I was glad that Walker’s story was greeted with such enthusiasm. The amazing woman who’d been relegated to footnote status in American history books — when she was even mentioned — was being introduced to millions of people around the world.
But by midweek, there were rumblings on Black Twitter and rants on black YouTube that drew tens of thousands of likes. Seasoned entertainment critics were weighing in. Why, many of them asked, had the script strayed so far from the truth and turned Walker’s story into a telenovela?
“I was one of many viewers both entertained by Netflix’s highly fictionalized portrayal of Walker and disappointed by the distortion of crucial facts in her life and rise,” wrote Maiysha Kai, managing editor for The Root’s The Glow Up. “The series’ creators really should have stuck to Walker’s real-life story,” Tambay Obenson wrote on IndieWire.com. In The New York Times, Mike Hale wrote, “The plot lines have been … entirely cooked up, for the sake of juicing the drama.”
In particular, a firestorm erupted over the character of Addie Monroe. While the head writer and showrunners insisted that she was a fabricated composite character, those who knew of Annie Malone, Walker’s real-life rival, weren’t buying it. They questioned why Malone had been transformed from a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist into Monroe, a cartoonish, color struck villain. Why had she become a light-skinned foil to a darker-skinned Walker, when in real life the women were of similar complexion?
“Apparently the laws of melodrama required that in order to raise up and finally tell the story of one black woman, another had to be put down,” Hale wrote.
The internet shade was serious and some of it targeted me. Why, someone asked in a YouTube comment thread, had “the great-great-granddaughter allowed this?” All I could think was: If this person only knew how hard I’d argued against that story line.
International audiences loved the series. But I also was hearing from people closer to home who were disappointed and confused. They’d tuned in to see a heroine who’d built a company that empowered black women and created generational wealth for their families. Viewers familiar with the contemporary racial politics of Black Lives Matter wished for more details about how Walker had thrived at a time when black communities were terrorized by lynchings. Instead, they got a fantasy boxing match between two black businesswomen, a heavy dose of concocted colorism and relatively little about Walker’s philanthropy and political activism.
I knew the head writer and showrunners had to slash the script and alter characters because the original 10 episodes were cut to four. Yet the narrative around Monroe was set in stone. The issues that bothered many critics also had bothered me. But because my contract with Warner Bros. granted me “script review,” rather than script approval, there was no obligation for the production team to incorporate my suggestions.
I was not surprised when one movie reviewer sent me a private Twitter message saying that “Madam Walker deserved better.”
It doesn’t make me happy to say that I’d seen that coming.
Four years earlier, though, everything had begun on a high note.
In December 2015, I’d received an email from producer Mark Holder, the co-founder of Wonder Street, asking if the rights to my book, On Her Own Ground, were available. When I met with him the following February, I was hopeful that the timing might be right for Walker to finally get the Hollywood treatment.
Driving through rainy rush-hour traffic from Holder’s office in Universal City, California, to California State University in Fullerton for a Black History Month speech, I had a lot of time to reflect on my various Walker projects. I thought about Phyl Garland, my adviser at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who’d insisted during the fall of 1975 that I write about my famous family. I thought about my late mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, who had been vice president of the Walker Company. Just before she died in January 1976, she’d given me her blessing “to tell the truth” as I wrote about our family.
After On Her Own Ground was published in 2001, I’d been through two failed options with major studios. That was followed by a decade when Hollywood’s conventional wisdom was that black movies, and with rare exceptions, black actors, wouldn’t sell overseas. Then came Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2013, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma in 2014. These high-quality, commercially successful films, along with Shonda Rhimes’ ratings blockbusters, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, challenged the narrative. April Reign’s 2015 #OscarsSoWhite call to action served notice to the industry that the audience and the creatives who had developed these projects were fed up with being ignored.
My meeting with Holder — and separately with three other producers who expressed interest in 2015 — made it seem possible again. In June 2016, when Holder told me Spencer was on board both as lead actor and an executive producer, I was ecstatic. An Academy Award winner playing my great-great-grandmother in a production based on my book. Just, wow!
I had no illusions that my 293-page biography, with its hundreds of endnotes and citations, would remain intact. I understood that composite characters came with the territory. I expected time to be compressed and locations to be conflated.
I also knew that the Hollywood production process often relegated authors to the sideline, and disregarded families and facts in favor of drama and manufactured conflict. I’d seen how Green Book had been a box-office hit, but left pianist Don Shirley’s family feeling betrayed because his life and relationships had been distorted.
I pushed away my fear that Walker might be transformed into an unrecognizable character. I hoped for the best, but I’d also lived long enough to know that things could go wrong despite everyone’s good intentions. I joked to a few friends that I was setting the bar very low. I just hoped I wouldn’t get a script that would cause me to cringe.
In the fall of 2016, Holder told me that Nicole Jefferson Asher had been selected as head writer and Kasi Lemmons as director. I wasn’t familiar with Asher, but I’d admired Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou and had spoken with her a few years earlier about a Madam Walker film.
Pitch meetings with several studios, Holder said, were being scheduled for early November. On Nov. 9, 2016, Asher and I spoke on the phone. What I thought would be the first of many conversations of collaborative brainstorming about the women I’d researched for much of my life turned out to be our last meaningful communication for more than two years.
My memory of that call is this: Asher shared her vision of wanting to focus on the conflict between Walker and Malone as a centerpiece of the series. I remember saying that while I thought Malone should be included as a minor character, I didn’t see that relationship as a central focus of Walker’s life. As in previous conversations with writers and producers, I talked about the people and relationships I considered most significant to Walker: her daughter, the St. Louis churchwomen who’d mentored her, attorney Ransom and her sales agents, as well as Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.
Asher and I did not talk again until January 2019.
But not because I didn’t try.
My emails throughout 2017 and 2018 show that I was given very few substantive updates and that I was shut out of story development conversations and critical pitch meetings with Warner Bros. and Netflix. Meanwhile, I continued working on a new biography of A’Lelia Walker, Walker’s daughter. I wasn’t thinking about the series 24/7, but I found it odd that my requests for script outlines and offers to share research were met with silence.
Imagine my surprise when I saw Asher’s Oct. 17, 2018, Instagram post with a photograph of chocolate and vanilla iced cupcakes with the words “No Notes!” in blue letters. “Cause there is a first time for everything…@netflix liked my script so much, they didn’t have any notes!” she typed.
My hunch that I was being left out of conversations now was confirmed. The decision by Asher and the showrunners, Janine Sherman Barrois and Elle Johnson, to exclude my views was a choice and not a requirement.
What was a requirement, though, according to my contract with Warner Bros., was that I be able to review the scripts before filming commenced.
When I finally received the script for episode one in the spring of 2019, I was beyond shocked. What I hoped would impress me instead made me cringe. It also broke my heart. I had been anticipating Hidden Figures. Instead The Real Housewives of Atlanta was staring back at me from the page.
“I had hoped that the Malone relationship would be handled with nuance,” I wrote in my notes. “I certainly didn’t expect the conflict to devolve into a reality television fight with the kind of profanity that I just don’t believe was the norm for women like Madam Walker and Annie Malone during the early 1900s. Both women were leading other black women with a kind of respectability politics that would have made screaming ‘b—-es and n—as’ quite unlikely.”
In July, when I received the fourth and final script, Malone had become “Addie Monroe,” a composite character, and the cursing had been toned down, but not eliminated.
“The Addie Monroe character allowed the miniseries flexibility to tackle a lot of issues that surrounded Walker’s rise — from struggles with rivals to colorism in the black community — in a way that would speak to modern viewers,” Asher told NPR TV critic Eric Deggans in a piece he wrote for Indianapolis Monthly, the magazine in the city where the Walker Company was based for eight decades.
Perhaps that desire to attract a younger demographic explains the stereotypical — and decidedly fictionalized — reference to Washington carrying a pistol, and scenes with Monroe as a cocaine addict, and Walker binge-eating to manage stress.
The series leaned heavily into the theme of colorism, the value judgment that a light-skinned person is by definition more attractive and deserves more privilege than a person with darker skin. It’s not that it isn’t a topic worth examining, but to a video panel assembled in March by the Association of Black Women Historians to discuss Self Made, the lack of context — and its insertion into a relationship where it didn’t exist — posed a problem. Both Walker and Malone “understood that the enemy for black women at that time was a racist economic system that kept them from pursuing a livelihood,” said University of Delaware history professor Tiffany Gill.
Many creative decisions, Asher explained to Deggans, were devised “to help the story resonate and feel contemporary to today’s audience.”
A scene that envisioned Walker “seek[ing] solace” from “her next-door neighbor” John D. Rockefeller struck me as implausible, in part because they’d never met in real life. Why, I wondered, would she have gone to Rockefeller for advice when she was close to so many black business and political leaders, both men and women, whose counsel she regularly sought and whose values and interests aligned with hers? And she most certainly did not stroll from Villa Lewaro, her home in Irvington, New York, over to Rockefeller’s lawn at Kykuit, which was not next door, but five miles away.
Did she really say she wanted to be “as big as Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller put together”? As a script line, it’s memorable and exactly the #bossmove a 21st century audience could applaud. But without more emphasis on her philanthropy, it underplays her primary objective.
“I love to use a part of what I make to help others,” she’d said in a speech at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention. “Your first duty is to humanity,” she told her sales agents at her second national convention in 1918 to encourage them to use their prosperity and influence to help others.
I objected to the relationship between Ransom and Sweetness, Ransom’s fictional cousin and numbers runner/pimp, because I knew from his daughter, A’Lelia Ransom Nelson, that he had taken a vow as a young man to never smoke, drink or gamble. But Sherman Barrois — whose credits include Claws — told Indianapolis Monthly, “We needed a character to dramatize some of the conceits we wanted to include. We can’t say Madam C.J. Walker literally knew this numbers runner … but what we can say is that she knew people like this.”
What this “conceit” did was undermine Ransom’s real-life reputation as a straight arrow who protected Walker from shady characters like Sweetness. It also left the incorrect impression that the Walker Company had relied upon illegal investments to get off the ground.
And what was the rationale for Esther, another fictional character, as A’Lelia Walker’s lover? As a plot twist, it showed conflict between mother and daughter. But the real-life drama involved A’Lelia’s two boyfriends: Dr. Wiley Wilson, whom Walker distrusted, and Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, whom she adored.
Once the series aired, I found myself in a balancing act. Yes, millions of people now knew Walker’s name and, thankfully, many wanted to know more about her. Yes, many understood that “inspired by” — the words in the subtitle under Self Made — meant that this version was more fiction than fact and not truly “based on” my book. But a lot of people took what they saw at face value.
I feared that after decades of excavating the facts and striving to do meticulous, reliable research about Walker’s life, business and friendships, I now would have to spend time and energy addressing a set of newly created myths.
“One of the great things about the time we’re living in is that people can actually go to Google and look her up,” Asher told Indianapolis Monthly when asked about some of the liberties the series had taken. To me, her answer was cavalier and showed no awareness or responsibility for the damage that might be done.
I have no quarrel with the need to create compelling entertainment. Hollywood executives have every right to expect a return on their financial investment. But because our stories have been erased and marginalized for so long, I do not think it’s too much to ask that the clichés be counterbalanced with some authenticity, especially with a life that defies the stereotypes and needs little embellishment.
Like everyone else, we want to see ourselves portrayed in movies that make us feel proud. That doesn’t mean our historical figures have to be saints, but there’s also no real reason that their flaws and missteps can’t be more truth than fiction, especially when they’re being introduced to large audiences for the first time.
Much of the “modern audience” is more likely to discover history on phones and tablets rather than in books. Movies and games already play a huge role in how they view the world and will continue to influence how they interpret history.
“We all want the same thing, which is to get it right,” said Rutgers University history professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar, whose award-winning book, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, is a prime candidate for a film.
In this moment when there is an explosion of video content about people of color, the stakes are high. I have many friends whose books have been optioned, some who also are descendants of famous African Americans with fascinating lives. But many of them are skittish because of the liberties they’ve seen scriptwriters take. They are concerned about the consequences when history is misinterpreted in ways that are antithetical to the record.
I hope my experience can be a catalyst for a conversation between historians and Hollywood producers. I’d love for this to be an opportunity that opens the door for more collaborations.
With so many significant aspects of Walker’s life still to be told, there is room for a do-over. And clearly there is enough of an audience that Self Made remained among Netflix’s most-watched programs for more than a week. We’ll never know for sure, but I’ll always wonder if it might have stayed in the No. 1 position longer if the influencers on social media had praised rather than panned it.
My A’Lelia Walker biography, The Joy Goddess of Harlem, will be published by Scribner next year. If ever there was a story that merited a multi-episode — and dare I say, big-budget — series, it’s this life of a black heiress and patron of the arts, whose parties attracted the most celebrated actors, musicians, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, along with European royalty and African diplomats. That she traveled internationally to Paris; London; Monte Carlo, Monaco; Rome; Cairo; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Havana is a bonus for any storyteller or scriptwriter.
I’m already envisioning the scenes, the locations and the actors in a post-COVID-19 world.