Among the many types of stories out there, the one about the underdog has always appealed.
We like a win. When the journey to victory is a case of clawing your way up from the bottom of the heap, we applaud. That’s the attraction in such stories.
The TV series ` Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker,’ released in March 2020 on Netflix falls in this category. It tells the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), the first self-made African American woman millionaire in the US. The series is based on the biography, ` On Her Own Ground,’ by A’Lelia Bundles.
The TV series picks up Sarah Breedlove’s story at that stage in her life when she is trying to sell Addie Monroe’s “ Magical Hair Grower’’ in St Louis, Missouri. The year is 1908. A washerwoman, struggling to make ends meet, we are told through flashback that Sarah had suffered from severe dandruff and hair loss. It was a condition commonly found in the community, particularly among its poor sections having no access to good quality housing. To compound matters, her then husband – John Davis, was abusive. That’s when she meets Addie Monroe, also African American, who has a cream she made that can fix the hair problem. It works for Sarah. Impressed, she takes it upon herself to be a saleswoman for Addie but the latter – she is much better looking than Sarah and believes that looks matter for selling products – discourages the washerwoman and tells her to stick to her existing profession. This angers Sarah. She creates her own line of products, which given her new marriage to Charles Joseph Walker is sold under the brand: Madam C. J. Walker. That’s also how Sarah who begins to identify herself more and more with her work to the expense of all else, prefers to be called.
The story revolves around Madame Walker’s struggles as a woman, a woman of color and a wife, to steer her business to success. Funding is a big challenge. Hair care products for colored women don’t appeal to the men who control money. Further, she is an unheard of woman and enjoys no recommendation from well-known names in society. But that does not dilute her drive. Sarah does not hesitate to dream of building up scale – setting up a factory – and becoming a millionaire like some men had already done in the US. The obsession creates rifts between her and her husband (Charles Joseph Walker is her third husband). And all the while there is the competition posed by the better looking Addie and her hair care products. She is as ambitious as Sarah and willing to play dirty to achieve her ends. Sarah’s story is as much rags to riches as it is a close look at old school capitalism. Above all it gives you a peek into what enterprise meant to a woman – a colored woman – those days; the difficulties she faced and the resolve she had to dip into to motivate self and achieve.
The casting is spot on and Octavia Spencer has done a damn good job, essaying the lead role of Sarah aka Madam C.J. Walker. The travails faced by the woman entrepreneur come through. However it must be pointed out that the narrative in the TV series is not completely true; some liberties have been taken with the characters. For example, Addie Monroe is a fictional character based on Addie Malone, who actually existed and was among the earliest African American woman millionaires. In real life, Addie – she too was in hair care products – is not said to have been as villainous as she is made to seem in the series. Also, Sarah’s daughter is portrayed as a lesbian in the series; in real life, that wasn’t the case. Wikipedia mentions both these departures from the truth. The departures add spice to the story, especially the competition between the two women entrepreneurs, which provides palpable tension for several episodes of the series.
There is also a mild absence of the regular magic you associate with underdog stories mainly because Madam Walker’s character is firmly rooted in the human. We see her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker fail; as she becomes more involved with her work, he feels neglected and indulges in adultery. He also demands his share of importance given the business bears the Walker surname although the hard work and relentless commitment to enterprise is mostly his wife’s. It would seem the price every independent woman hauling the cross of tradition is forced to pay. But despite her own ascent through unflinching focus on business, Sarah ends up demanding a baby from her daughter for a business without heir is journey without purpose and continuity. Fiction or otherwise, at that point the modernity and liberalism you associate with the Madam Walker story falters before it is restored to dignity through recourse to adoption.
All in all, a fantastic story and a pretty well made TV series. It is recommended viewing, whether you have ample hair on your head or much less like me.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)