Self-isolation can make for strange bedfellows—and strange viewing, as the streaming industry seems to be one of the few thriving in during the coronavirus crisis (raise your hand if you’re wandered far from your intended Netflix queue at this point). Sometimes, the truth is stranger than any fiction imaginable (we’re looking at you, Tiger King); but as many discovered when Self Made, Netflix’s highly-anticipated biopic inspired by the life Madam C.J. Walker, premiered on March 20, sometimes truth-inspired fiction can be even stranger.
After watching Self Made, many viewers were left with more questions about Madam Walker’s legacy than honest answers (and full disclosure; Self Made was our partner in the launch of The Glow Up 50, our inaugural list celebrating the black tastemakers who have walked in Walker’s stead). Why, for instance, the heavy dependence on light-skinned tropes, most often expressed in the fictional nemesis that was “Addie Munroe” (Carmen Ejogo)—a character inspired by the very real (and by all accounts, also brown-skinned) founder of the Poro Company, Annie Turnbo Malone?
As the limited series admits (and is true to life), it was Munroe/Malone from whom Walker poached her initial idea for the “Wonderful Hair Grower” that would put her company on the map. What it does not concede is that Malone may have rightfully earned the title of first self-made millionairess ahead of Walker, and was equally the philanthropist. While the two were competitors who reportedly feuded over the issue of the appropriation in life (and understandably so), why the need to make Munroe Self Made’s conniving, backstabbing, light-skinned, long-haired villain? And she wasn’t the only one; indeed, light-skinned women were frequently positioned as both literal threats and subconscious specters throughout Self Made, haunting, mocking, and torturing Octavia Spencer’s Walker with a type of Eurocentric-adjacent beauty she could never hope to attain—and arguably, the tropes did Walker, Malone and the biopic itself a disservice.
Also debatable was whether Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia, was, in fact, queer—a question that has long been a subject of speculation, given A’Lelia’s then-unconventional yet steadfast support of same-sex-loving artists during the Harlem Renaissance, but has never been substantiated. In Self Made, it is presented as a plot point—but again, the keywords in viewing this version of Walker’s story are “inspired by.”
Do the liberties taken with Walker’s story make Self Made must-see TV? Two weeks after its release, the jury is still out, but with a dearth of depictions of Walker, many are seeking more facts than fiction—and thanks to famed filmmaker Stanley Nelson (whose Miles Davis: Birth of Cool should also be in your Netflix queue), there’s more insight to be found.
Released this week on YouTube by World Channel, Nelson’s first and little known documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream unpacks some of the mythology shrouding the history of Madam Walker and her society doyenne daughter, A’Lelia. And Nelson is in a unique position to do so; his grandfather was Freeman B. Ransom, the Walker Company’s longtime general manager and legal counsel, portrayed in the film as an early and steadfast supporter of Madam Walker. Nelson’s mother, A’Lelia Ransom Nelson, also played a significant role in the Walker legacy; aside from being named for Walker’s daughter, she was president of the Walker Company from 1953 to its demise in the 1980s, fulfilling Walker’s mandate that the leader of her company must always be a woman.
“[Walker’s impact] was quite an important thing; to black women, in particular, and I think, really, in the history of whole women’s movement, very important to all women in the country,” Ms. Nelson explains in the 51-minute film.
“She didn’t know anything about ‘black is beautiful,’ but what she did is made it beautiful,” says another of Walker Company’s former employees, among the several interviewed for Nelson’s revealing documentary, which both lauds the entrepreneur’s impact and generosity and dismantles any illusions that she was so much an organic innovator as a shrewd businesswoman and marketing genius.
In fact, perhaps Two Dollars and a Dream’s closest parallel to Walker’s portrayal in Self Made is that Walker appears to have been a study in contrasts. She was indeed a race woman who reinvested her fortunes in her own communities—a former company secretary estimates that Walker was at one point making $1000 day, on average (without taxation) in an era when most families made $12 a week—empowering generations of black women to earn independently.
Nevertheless, she was arguably also a purveyor of a Eurocentric aesthetic, consistent with the beauty standards of her time. Walker’s ultimate line of 23 products included a “skin brightener”—and she, along with Malone, also popularized the hot comb, a well-known tool for helping to give black hair a straighter appearance. Yet she reportedly had an “iron-clad” rule that the word “straightener” never be used in relation to her products, and as those who knew and worked with her attest in Nelson’s documentary, her goal was never to make her clientele “look white.”
“The popular belief that Madam Walker only was out there selling hair grease to straighten black hair to make them look more white is totally false,” says Ms. Nelson.
So what is true? If nothing else, that Madam C.J. Walker is a woman whose story deserves to be continually explored and excavated, both for its aspirational and contradictory elements. And while, if you haven’t already, we’d recommend checking out Self Made for sheer, campy entertainment (What? You got someplace better to be?)—and to support #StrongBlackLead Spencer, an almost entirely black cast and writer/director Kasi Lemmons, Stanley Nelson’s documentary serves as an excellent companion piece, as well as a treasured time capsule of black life long since past.