Better Than Fiction

The real Madam C. J. Walker was even more interesting than the new Netflix show

An orphaned child of slaves, who grew up to be a business tycoon and generous donor—the first female self-made millionaire in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records—is a good subject for a Netflix series. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker debuted on the streaming service in March. It’s derived from a book by Walker’s great-great-grandaughter, and features an impressive cast, including Octavia Spencer and Tiffany Haddish. LeBron James is a producer, and the director also steered the recent feature film Harriet.

In four 45-minute episodes, the series shows Walker evolving from a washerwoman and wife of an abusive husband to the owner of a New York mansion just down the street from John D. Rockefeller. As the “inspired by” language indicates, the show admits it takes plenty of liberties with Walker’s life. One of the most regrettable is ignoring her philanthropy. On screen, Walker is portrayed as a domineering leader most concerned about her own success, for its own sake. The generous spirit that drove much of her business success and personal giving is downplayed.

There is a title screen at the very end mentioning that Walker donated to black colleges, social-service organizations, and cultural institutions. What’s not made clear is that she in fact gave away much of her fortune during life, and most of the rest at her death. Her beneficiaries included the Tuskegee Institute, the Manassas Industrial School, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute, the St. Paul’s Mite Missionary Society, and YMCAs in several Midwestern cities. (“If the association can save our boys, our girls will be saved,” said the real-life Walker, “and that’s what I am interested in.”)

While Self Made is an intriguing, if melodramatic, exploration of the life of an early black entrepreneur, its best effect may be to get some viewers to focus on the real woman, whose legacy was rather different from the one portrayed in the show. Here is a five-minute interview where Walker’s great-great-grandaughter hopes viewers will be inspired to read her nonfiction biography “and really learn some of the facts about Madam Walker.” You can also get a useful summary of her business and social entrepreneurship in her Hall of Fame entry in The Almanac of American Philanthropy.