Self Made: A Closer Look

by Tim Gordon

Earlier this week, Netflix released a four-part limited miniseries based on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, entitled Self Made, highlighting the story of the pioneering hair care entrepreneur. Walker’s story is compelling but the real story is what’s not included that has left many people disappointed in the series.

Before we begin, I think it is important to distinguish between three terms that are often bandied about without much discussion. They are, a true story, based on a true story, and inspired by a true story.

true story is the reenactment of an actual event, usually using the same names for the characters and the scene is recreated accordingly.  There is no dramatization whatsoever (it’s rather impossible but minimal changes happen)  and the story is well researched before being compiled. Facts and figures of a true story can be validated. They often mention the source (the author himself undergoing/undergone the event) or the biography or reports to affirm the veracity of the story. This is seen in many documentaries and autobiographies.

Based on a true story‘ refers to the recreation of a story with changes to the storyline to suit the audience’s understanding and expectations. Often done to entertain the audience and dramatizes certain events for that purpose. Moderate modification of facts is seen and these aren’t absolutely authentic but the basic storyline can be verified with an actual story. Seen in making certain films and crime/law related sitcoms.

‘Inspired from a true story‘ is the adaptation of a story in spinning a new tale altogether. Characters usually have different names. The setting, progression, and scene can sometimes be share little similarities with a true story. The gist, however, maybe the same. Only certain aspects of the plot would be drawn from real stories. This term is also used when stories are partially copied and duplicated from a real incident. Dramatization and manipulation of facts are seen heavily as it is a new story.

Carmen Egojo as Addie Munroe, based on Annie Malone

Now that you understand the distinctions, let’s introduce to you, Annie Turnbo Malone. In Self Made, Malone’s character is named Addie Munroe, played by Carmen Ejogo, who introduces Walker to her hair care line and later rebuffs Walker’s efforts to promote her product as a member of her team. Disenchanted with Munroe’s refusal, Walker largely borrows (steals) Munroe’s formula and goes on to a life of fame and fortune.

It is a wonderful narrative but unfortunately, this series, based on her great-great-granddaughter’s biography, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker, written by a team of writers, including Nicole Jefferson Asher, A’Lelia Bundles, Elle Johnson, Janine Sherman Barrois, Tyger Williams, is blatantly not true. While in the series, Munroe is portrayed as an insecure, color-struck, hater who resented the fact that Walker was able to market her formula and professionally out-pace her while following her across state lines to thwart Walker’s success is not just “tweaking the narrative” to make it more entertaining but worst than that it is the ability to elevate Walker while minimizing Malone’s significant contribution from the history books.

What this writer learned about Malone AFTER watching Self Made is that Malone was fascinated by hair and by chemistry as a child, but illness forced her out of high school. In spite of this setback, Malone continued to experiment and with the guidance of her herbalist aunt began to make hair products catered to black women. One of her first products was a liquid shampoo but she was particularly interested in finding a way to straighten hair that didn’t damage the hair follicles.

PORO College ad in Opportunity Journal (1931)

At the turn of the century, Malone tweaked her experiment creating the Wonderful Hair Grower. Several years later, her path would cross with Sarah Davis/McWilliams – later known as Walker. Battling hair loss for years, Malone suggested various methods, including her Poro system, to Walker to remedy her follicular woes, including regularly washing her hair, and improving her diet.

Grateful and sensing a business opportunity, Walker began to sell her own products in 1905, which were clearly modeled after Malone’s. Often referred to as Walker’s role model, she named her product (wait for it) Wonderful Hair Grower. A furious Malone took out an ad warning readers to “beware of imitations,” but Walker’s career continued to soar. Now rivals, Malone and Walker both achieved enormous wealth after finding their niche in the hair care business. Walker would die at age 51 in 1919 with a net worth of roughly $600,000. But Malone was already a millionaire, by this time, but Walker is the mogul who was (wrongly) labeled the first female “self-made millionaire.”

In addition, Walker after her untimely death was also falsely credited with inventing chemical hair relaxers and the hot comb. Neither Malone or Walker can make such a claim, Frenchman Marcel Grateau created the hair tool in 1872 but Walker’s death turned her into a legend of sorts. Malone’s life, on the other hand, was hardly as dramatic as Walker’s, which explains her anonymity. While Malone’s life lacked headline-grabbing moments commonplace to Walker’s, her long life span was another reason her story wasn’t mythologized. She lived to be nearly 90 years old, and saw her business through the Great Depression and also managed to keep it under her control after her costly divorce from her second husband. By the 1950s, Malone had over 30 branches of her Poro cosmetology school up and running across the country. In addition, Malone also owned a whole city block in Chicago, was legendary for her philanthropy, gave diamond rings for five years of service to her sales team, gave cash awards for savings accounts & home purchases, trained well over 75,000 women entrepreneurs, including Walker to become Poro Agents. Annie trained Madam C.J. Walker to be a “Poro Agent.”

Vintage photo of Annie Malone (center, front row w/ long print dress) at a 1938 graduation held at a Baptist church in Atlanta.

Apparently, there was no distinction that proceeded Self Made. What are we to make of such an inaccurate farce passed off entertainment? True, every biopic takes liberties with the source material but the outright admission and minimization of one character at the expense of another is negligent. While the public and history have frequently championed Walker’s rise, let’s not forget that any story that mentions her should also feature Malone as fellow successful hair care pioneers who both enjoyed tremendous success serving the needs of Black women over generations. In conclusion, Annie Turnbo Malone matters just as much as Madam C.J. Walker – period!