That awkward moment when you’re not rooting for Madam C.J. Walker
How the Netflix special left viewers with mixed feelings about Addie Monroe
There’s an unsettling feeling when you’re watching a film and find out you’re not quite sure who the antagonist is. Every blue moon a film will come out and lead to debate over whether the world’s Keyser Söze (“The Usual Suspects”) should be admired for fooling everyone — or shamed. Or, maybe you’ve held debates regarding whether Erik Killmonger was justified for his views on Black Panther and Wakanda/American society?
Interestingly, that’s how I felt by the end of Netflix’s “Self Made,” a four-part film inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker. Anyone with a decent history book already knows that Madam C.J. Walker has widely been credited as America’s first female self-made millionaire in the Guinness Book of World Records. But what some viewers may not know (read: me) is the complex business relationship and rivalry between Madam C.J. Walker and Addie Monroe — who could be Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, according to Town & Country.
Major spoilers below: Please do not read past this point if you have not watched all four parts of Netflix’s “Self Made” or don’t already know the rivalry between Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker. Comments saying, “I haven’t watched the film yet” will automatically be hidden/muted. I welcome VIEWERS to share their thoughts after seeing the film. Argue with me. Agree with me. Tell me how you learned about her. Come back and chat with me after you’ve watched the series!
Throughout the film, Madam C.J. Walker was bullied and shamed by her husband, Annie Malone, a funeral director, male investors and society as a whole. Colorism clearly played a part in why Madam C.J. Walker was not the “ideal” person to sell the hair care products. And truth be told, even in today’s society, the “look” of a woman (outside of the Natural Hair Movement) still looks more like Addie Monroe than it does the self-made millionaire.
I was all set to scoff at Annie Malone, who perfectly fit the “she thinks she’s cute ’cause she’s light-skinned” stereotype that often goes around. (To be frank, there are naive and often-unlikable women who genuinely believe that’s all it takes. I am not a fan of this mindset.) But it didn’t take long before the film gave me an oddly less-than-glowing look at Madam C.J. Walker’s character, who I’d widely respected throughout my childhood education.
While her husband was a drunk and clearly a womanizer, I pondered on whether I would be on his side if he were a woman and Madam C.J. Walker was a man. She regularly ignored every marketing idea he had and bossed him around like he was a peasant. The pre-Harlem Renaissance era wasn’t exactly kind to women. And her son-in-law was an absolute jackass who deserved to have his wife A’Lelia Walker “dance on his grave” in that “raggedy marriage.” (I cannot think of a better casting pick than Tiffany Haddish for A’Lelia Walker’s role.) However, I would’ve been disgusted had he treated her the way she treated him. But meh, he’ll bounce back.
I spent more time wondering why Addie Monroe wouldn’t stop stalking Madam C.J. Walker all over town. Traveling a thousand miles away just to set up shop next to her was a bit much. (Bustle reports that this move did not happen in real life.) The Booker T. Washington stunt, the newspaper ad space competition and the shameless plugging outside of a burning home were also exhausting to watch. But then I got to the end of the movie and found out the jaw-dropping secret that was definitely not taught to me in my elementary school, high school or college years: the self-made millionaire stole the hair care recipe from her rival.
While I’m hoping Madam C.J. Walker was not as indignant about this theft in real life, she clearly didn’t let that accusation stop her business (or her fame). Meanwhile, I have heard zilch about Addie Monroe (or real-life Annie Malone) over the years. Poro College? Never heard of any of the 32 locations. Her humanitarian work with the National Negro Business League? Nope, not that either. Rumors that she was worth more than $14 million and became rich before Madam C.J. Walker? That news left my head spinning. If not for that one secret that her husband (allegedly) divulged, I would’ve turned off the movie thinking Addie Monroe was a nuisance and deserved to go broke. Now? I kinda feel like her spitefulness was more than justified — regardless of her offensive views on colorism. Whether viewers appreciate the self-hating perspective of her character, the fact remains that stealing someone’s product is a lawsuit just waiting to happen.
Regardless of my own views on the legal ramifications of this rivalry — and why all new and thriving businesses should have a trademark on the name and patent on their products — what I can say is I appreciate that the story was generally truthful. It would’ve been very easy for the producers (LeBron James, Janine Sherman Barrois, Maverick Carter, Kasi Lemmons, and Octavia Spencer) to just let this bit of news slip by. (Or, avoid reminding viewers who already knew this story.)
“The proof of the value of our work is that we are being imitated and largely by persons whose own hair we have actually grown.” — letter from Annie Malone to The Statesman around 1906 (Source: Bustle)
But would it have been ideal to do so, letting people believe that the hair care billionaire was a hero — a little abrasive, but a hero nonetheless? No. And for that reason, I can still respect her tenacity and determination to overcome all obstacles, even if she created some of them. Still though, this film made me wish Annie Malone’s relatives could’ve shared her story as profoundly as Madam C.J. Walker’s great great granddaughter (A’Lelia Bundles) has. Either way it goes, “Self Made” was an excellent film to educate viewers during Women’s History Month (and a bonus Black History lesson, too).
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