Curating the self-made: the ethics of dramatising Black history

The real life Madam C.J. Walker. Source: biography.com


Regarding the current lockdown situation the whole world appears to have found itself unwillingly a part of, there has been more than enough time to catch up with the recent Netflix series, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. I had enough pre-requisite historical and contextual knowledge of Walker before watching to summarise my initial impressions with only one brief phrase: wasted opportunity. 

The creative liberties taken throughout this ambitious four-part series combine into what I take to be a blatant disregard for historical fact on behalf of the show’s writers, in favour of craftily curated and heightened drama. These factors have unfortunately dominated my feelings about the show, and I believe these are by far its biggest downfall for several reasons that I will further elaborate on throughout this piece.

"There is far too much to lose when someone is inaccurately or misleadingly represented, yet so much empowerment to be gained when it is done right. Unless you are one of the Civil Rights movement’s greats, such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr, any adaptation of your life may likely be the first (and perhaps, last) attempt."


Adapting the story of someone’s life into a cinematic format is common practice in the world of screen production. However, the scriptwriting and directing processes are often found to tread the line between remaining true to the portrayal of a historical figure, and fabricating certain elements of their life (including close friendships and other social interactions). This is done namely to add to the complexities of that persons character and, most importantly, the depth of drama and tension that formed the trajectory of the narrative. This is certainly true when it comes to enigmatic, controversial, or particularly private characters, as demonstrated in Netflix’s hugely successful biopic series The Crown which has drawn criticism for altering events concerning the British Royal family and the rule of Queen Elizabeth II.

In a similar vein, 2017's The Greatest Showman seemed to ignore the fact that the real P.T. Barnum was more interested in exploiting ethnic minorities than empowering circus oddballs. In reality (and very much away from the glitz of the silver screen), he profiteered from racial othering by exhibiting African American slaves with birth defects in a grotesque and dehumanising manner. Perhaps his story would be considered a better blueprint for a horror film than a musical. It appears to me that the issue at hand here is that most of these significant narrative manipulations seem deliberate when the film or series in question is in pursuit of an Academy Award and a feel-good reputation.

"I ask, what good is uplifting the legacy of one black woman whilst misleadingly portraying another?"


However, I think this process becomes hugely problematic when applying the same loose editorial decisions to the lives of Black historical figures, as there is simply so much at stake. There is far too much to lose when someone is inaccurately or misleadingly represented, yet so much empowerment to be gained when it is done right. 

Unless you are one of the Civil Rights movement’s greats, such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr, any adaptation of your life may likely be the first (and perhaps, last) attempt. It is important to consider that a lot of the audience may not be watching with much, if any, prior historical or contextual knowledge of the figure being dramatised. There is also a chance that viewers may not fact-check the finer details of the narrative, or even consider that the perspective from which they are viewing said person's life may in fact be biased. Because of this, when choosing to take on these projects, there is a duty to be judicious in the creative liberties one takes. Whilst entertaining, these TV shows and films run the risk of contributing to a misguided perception of the Black community.

Consider why a producer/director may make these changes in the first place. The obvious answers are simple—drama, tension, piquing the audience's interest for views and awards. At best, it’s fun. It’s exciting. At worst, such as the case of Self-Made, it ignores the abundance of multifaceted and complex relationships in Walker’s life in favour of superficial drama, which is reduced to competition  between women and apparent misogyny. 

The most significant example of this is the representation of Annie Malone, characterised as 'Addie Munroe’ in the show. Munroe fills the role of arch-nemesis, her purpose only serving to highlight colourism within the Black community. So I ask, what good is uplifting the legacy of one black woman whilst misleadingly portraying another?

Still of Self-Made. c/o Netflix

Self-Made follows Walker's 'rags to riches’ journey, depicting the development and growth of her African-American hair care manufacturing company. The character of Munroe is introduced in the first episode when Walker is working as a washerwoman, struggling with her hair loss. Munroe comes to her aid and they end up forming an arrangement; Walker does Munroe’s laundry in exchange for free hair treatment. This sparks Walker’s desire to become a saleswoman for Munroe. 

However, Walker’s ambitions are thwarted when Munroe tells her she doesn’t have the right ‘look’, and hires two lighter-skinned girls in her place. Munroe explains to Walker that ‘coloured women will do anything to look like me [...] even if deep down they know they can’t.’ This sour altercation marks the beginning of their rivalry in the show, and confirms Walker’s affirmation that black women shouldn’t aspire to be a ‘Gibson girl.’

While Walker and Malone were business competitors, they did not—in real life—have the Hero-Villain dynamic that the show portrays; their relationship has even been described as ‘transactional’ by some historians. Malone and Walker shared many similarities, where they were both the children of parents formerly enslaved and orphaned early in life. Malone was younger than Walker, but only by three years. She was also a chemist and created a line of products, one being ‘The Wonderful Hair Grower.’ Malone was by no means the ‘high yellow’ stereotype she is presented as in the series, and started beauty schools long before Walker, employing Black women (both light and dark-skinned) as sales agents. Sadly, Malone’s vilification in the series overshadows her achievements. 

Walker’s title as the first Black female millionaire is dubious at best; there is not nearly enough documentation to support the claim (it seems apparent that Malone became a millionaire before Walker). According to A'Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, Walker died with a net worth of around $600k.



Still of Self-Made. c/o Netflix

In reality, Walker wasn’t rejected by Malone, she was one of her first sales agents and was mentored by her while she lived in Saint Louis. That was until Walker moved from Saint Louis to Denver where she launched her own hair care company, selling products such as ‘The Wonderful Hair Grower.’ It must be noted that there’s reasonable suspicion as to whether Walker stole from Malone as several other women sold similar formulas at the time. That being said, there is evidence that Malone thought there was some form of foul play at hand, and even went as far as to buy advertisements in Denver warning consumers to ‘beware of imitations.’

"Netflix and its billion-dollar budget need to appreciate that it is possible to depict both Walker’s flaws and successes harmoniously. Walker's story is special and worthy of being told precisely because of the complexities and challenges she faced during her career."


Now, that’s what I call quality, genuine drama.

In the last episode of Self-Made, it is revealed that Walker did steal the base formulation of Malone’s product before adapting it into her own variation. However, Munroe’s antagonist role in the show downplays the negative connotations Walker's infringement would have otherwise suggested. Thus, the effect still fits within the shining image of heroism the producers wanted to portray in Walker.

Netflix and its billion-dollar budget need to appreciate that it is possible to depict both Walker’s flaws and successes harmoniously. Walker's story is special and worthy of being told precisely because of the complexities and challenges she faced during her career. Had these points been navigated better, the show could have been a really brilliant tribute to Walker’s life. Not only did the writers re-contextualise Walker’s perceived faults to maintain a specific image, but Walker’s greatest achievements (including her philanthropy, political outreach and involvement in the anti-lynching movement) were also barely covered in the show with any meaningful depth or consideration. It is sad to see Walker and Malone’s rivalry boiled down to colourism.

Still of Self-Made. c/o Netflix


Another relationship that could have been better illuminated in the series was Walker’s dynamic with Booker T. Washington, who would later congratulate Walker for being 'a striking example of the possibilities of Negro womanhood in the business world.’ Unlike the series suggests, Washington was not a raging misogynist. In episode two, Washington refuses to endorse Walker’s products with the fear that a Black woman’s success would outdo their male counterparts. Walker ends up going to the National Negro Business League Convention against his interests to state her case, angering Washington.

In reality, this disagreement was not about gender at all; he simply disliked how black hair companies ‘fostered imitation of white beauty standards.' While Washington stood ardently against the promotion of hair straightening, Walker understood that beauty was about more than vanity: it was a valuable form of social mobility. Although she advocated for the financial independence of Black Women, she still had to acknowledge the pressures of Eurocentric beauty standards that exist even into today. Throughout her career, she had to combat accusations of exploitation and profiteering from Black Women’s feelings of inferiority.

"... These figures and their legacies deserve better representation than falsities in the name of high drama, especially as opportunities to retell the extraordinary lives of Black historical figures are so rare. Black stories are constantly being robbed of their complexities and nuance."


This is another example of a complex relationship that I think could have been better explored in the series by staying true to Walker’s legacy (but without compromising on heated drama for the adaption to screenplay)

Walker's life story could have been retold for a modern audience to raise compelling issues surrounding the Black community. I admit it’s unreasonable to expect 100% historical accuracy from a dramatisation, but fabricating events while using the names of real people feels like an unnecessary attempt at controversy. This is disheartening because these figures and their legacies deserve better representation than falsities in the name of high drama, especially as opportunities to retell the extraordinary lives of Black historical figures are so rare. 

Black stories are constantly being robbed of their complexities and nuance. This is why we must be mindful of how they are being told and the lasting effects this has on the Black community. Biopics are more than entertainment, they are—at their core—forms of education.

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