Madam C.J. Walker gets the Hollywood treatment

Netflix series dramatizes the life of trailblazing philanthropist and entrepreneur

Created date

April 30th, 2020
A full-page newspaper ad for Madam C.J. Walker products.

A full-page newspaper ad for Madam C.J. Walker products.

Born on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Sarah Breedlove was the first child in her family to be born free from slavery.  

Her early years were rife with struggle. An orphan by the time she was seven, Breedlove was taken in by her older sister, but her abusive brother-in-law made life in that house untenable.

She married at 14 just so she could have “a home of her own.”

At 17, she became a mother. At 20, she became a widow.   

School of hard knocks

Breedlove was strong, and although she had no formal education, the school of hard knocks taught her to meet each new challenge with determination and grace.

To support her beloved daughter A’Lelia, Breedlove worked as a maid, a washer woman, and a seamstress.

By 1904, she was a sales representative for Annie Malone, an African American beauty entrepreneur who later became Breedlove’s main competitor.

After a falling out with Malone, Breedlove set out on her own. By this time, she was living in Denver and married to newspaper man C.J. Walker.

Breedlove suffered from a chronic scalp condition and was going bald. She told an audience that she was so ashamed of her “frightful appearance” that she prayed to the Lord for a solution.

Her solution came to her one night in a dream. She said a big African man appeared and gave her the formula for something that would cure her condition and restore her hair. Breedlove said, “I mixed them together and my hair began to grow back faster than it had fallen out.”

That formula became the foundation of Breedlove’s tremendously popular product, Madam C.J. Walker’s Miracle Hair Grower manufactured by the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.    

In an era when the Gibson Girl was the pinnacle of beauty, Breedlove made a bold statement by putting her own image on the tins of her hair product, declaring to the world that she was beautiful.

Success

The Miracle Hair Grower took off because it actually worked.

In the early 1900s, most Americans did not have indoor plumbing, so bathing and hair washing were done infrequently. The “Walker System” called for users to wash their hair more often.

The other part of the system involved regular use of the “secret” hair grower pomade, which was basically an ointment containing sulfur. (Sulfur had been a natural home remedy for dandruff and other scalp conditions long before Breedlove put it in her formula.)

Breedlove became a sensation, and everywhere she went, she told people her story.  

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen,” she said. “And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

By 1917, the company had trained 20,000 women—many of whom were able to elevate their lives dramatically.

Walker agents (mostly African American women) had a chance to be financially independent. They often approached Breedlove after her appearances to tell her their own rags to riches stories. One agent told her, “You gave me the ability to make more in one day’s work than I could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen.”

To Breedlove, the job was about more than money. At every convention and gathering, she reminded her agents of their mission. “Your first duty is to humanity,” she told them. “I want others to look at us and realize that we care not about ourselves but about others.”

Finding success is not how Breedlove’s story ends. Her real story, and how she wanted to be remembered, begins with all the money she gave away.  

A generous philanthropist from the earliest days of the company, Breedlove invested heavily in the black community and women’s causes throughout her lifetime and beyond.

Modern retelling

Madam C.J. Walker’s unique story has been begging for the Hollywood treatment for decades, so it is surprising that no one has put Sarah Breedlove’s story on the screen before now.

In March, Netflix released a four-part miniseries Self Made starring Octavia Spencer as Breedlove. The series is based on the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles, Breedlove’s great-great-granddaughter.

At a recent appearance, Bundles noted that her great-great-grandmother is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for becoming the first self-made American woman millionaire.

She went on to say that while that is a “big deal” for many people, for her, Madam C.J. Walker is about much more than just the wealth she created. Bundles says she hopes her great-great-grandmother is remembered for the many jobs she provided and all the worthwhile causes she supported.

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