On March 20, SpringHill Entertainment and Wonder Street, in conjunction with Warner Bros. Television, will release a Netflix original, entitled “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” The four-part miniseries, starring Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, will chronicle the life and times of Madam C.J. Walker, heralded as the top-earning African American businesswoman of her time. The miniseries is based on the book, “On Her Own Ground: the Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
In addition to featuring Spencer, who is also a producer of the miniseries, the production will include famed actors Blair Underwood and Tiffany Haddish, among others. Sports icon LeBron James is one of the program’s executive producers as well.
The miniseries comes some months following the 100-year anniversary of Madam C.J. Walker’s death in 1919, a pivotal year that also marked the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. It tells the story of a woman with an indomitable spirit and a pioneering vision.
Before she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, the woman who built a business empire, Sarah Breedlove was born the daughter of slaves in 1867. A mere seven years later, she became an orphan. Her humble beginnings and her work as a washerwoman inspired a yearning for more. Galvanized by the need to escape an abusive relationship, crime-ridden streets, and imminent poverty, she turned to entrepreneurship. Eventually, she created a popular hair growth and restoration formula and, following her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker, established the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906.
Walker was extremely enterprising for her time, traveling across the nation to circulate her product, engage potential new customers, and identify new opportunities for expansion. At a time when marketing and self-promotion were not readily available options for most African Americans, she developed strategic connections that enabled her to secure inroads with the press and to create on-the-ground ambassadors for her products. Her connections to luminaries of the time — including scholars Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B DuBois — enabled her to significantly advance other initiatives in later years. This included her involvement in civil rights, empowerment, and philanthropic endeavors.
In the retelling of her great-great-grandmother’s story, Emmy Award-winning Bundles — journalist, public speaker, former television network executive, and founder of her family archives — provides an eye-opening account of Madam C.J. Walker.
The book, “On Her Own Ground” dispels myths associated with Walker, including one that her hair care formula was designed to straighten, rather than to restore, hair, which was untrue of the woman who took great pride in her African American roots. The book addresses another misrepresentation: that she had amassed a million-dollar net worth by the time of her death. It also sheds light on Walker’s charitable works, including her creation of food baskets to help the hungry, payoff of an African American retirement residence for pensionless former slaves, and scholarship support of Tuskegee Institute students. Similarly, it discusses her activism, from solidifying support of minority soldiers, to insisting upon a cosmetology curriculum at Tuskegee Institute, and encouraging young women to become entrepreneurs in control of their own empires.
Walker’s move to New York, where she lived in Harlem with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker Robinson, and in Westchester, provided a more strategic platform from which to espouse her views and to support various initiatives. The extravagant 108-110 West 136th Street Harlem townhouse — which contained a fully equipped beauty parlor on the lower floor — and her palatial Irvington-on-the-Hudson estate were gathering places for prominent African Americans of the era.
Walker’s premature death in 1919 was an unmitigated loss for the community, the effects of which reverberated across the nation. While her passing marked the loss of the first African American self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist, it also inspired legions to boldly pursue their dreams. Her rise from most humble beginnings to monumental success reminded the many who came after her of the possibilities that lay before them, if they dared to envision a brighter future. Walker’s hair care business was passed down across the generations and was eventually sold in the mid 1980s. Much like her business and her legacy, the name of Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia, has been passed down over time as well, as evidenced by the book’s — “On Her Own Ground” — namesake.
In 2019, the street of the Harlem townhouse that became a social forum for Harlem literati under A’Lelia Walker Robinson, was renamed Madam C.J. & A’Lelia Walker Place. The renaming was a long overdue honor, befitting of an inspiring visionary, and her unparalleled legacy of entrepreneurship, resilience, and empowerment.
Check out the trailer below:
Editorial Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publishing.