In Shadow And Act’s latest Facebook Live Q&A series, Locked Down With____, A'Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter and biographer of Madam C.J. Walker stopped by to break down the fact vs. fiction in the Netflix miniseries, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, starring Octavia Spencer as Walker.
Was Walker the first Black woman millionaire?
Based upon research, FACT: Bundles said that from her research, “When Madam Walker died, her estate was worth somewhere between $600,000 to $700,000 in 1919, [which is] $8 million or $9 million dollars today." Bundles also said that on the day of Walker's death, “her company was worth $1 million to $2 million." But the numbers aren't really what's important to her. What is important to Bundles, however, is “the generation wealth she created for others and the opportunities she gave to others and what she did with her money," as well as fostering her employees to also give back to charity.
Did Madam CJ Walker really steal Annie Malone's formula?
IT'S COMPLICATED: In the series, Walker's rival is Addie Munroe (Carmen Ejogo), a fictional composite character loosely based on Walker's real-life business rival, Annie Malone. In reality, the two did have a falling out, but, Bundles said, the reason isn't known. However, one thing it might not have been over is the stealing of each other's products. Bundles said it is important for folks to know that the formula Munroe claimed Walker stole “was not an original formula because it had been around in medical textbooks and pharmaceutical formulas for at least a couple of hundred years before 1900, when Annie Malone started her company." Other companies, Black and white-owned, also used similar formulas when creating products.
Did colorism play a part in Malone's success vs. Walker's?
Likely FICTION: The rift in Malone and Walker's relationship also might not have been because of colorism, a storyline apparent in Self-Made. Bundles said the new storyline is a Hollywood invention for the drama series, saying that when she sees the two women in photographs, “I don't see a huge amount of difference in their complexion.”
On Malone, Bundles said, “I have always written about her. I did original research about her and I've always written about her as a successful businesswoman who also was a philanthropist These were both women who were very successful who helped other people, who cared about Black people and who I think are both deserving of attention."
Was Walker's daughter A'Lelia (Tiffany Haddish) actually queer in real life, as the series suggests?
INCONCLUSIVE: The answer to that question is largely inconclusive, as Bundles said her research suggests A'Lelia (who is Bundles' great-grandmother)'s last relationship might have been with a woman, but there is nothing concrete to rest the assumption on. Also, the character of Esther, Bundles said, isn't a real person.
In real life, though, the rift between mother and daughter happened because of A'Lelia's relationship with her two boyfriends, both of whom were handsome doctors. However, one was a bad boy, someone Walker felt wouldn't make her daughter happy, and the other was a heroic gentleman, having trained under Walker's personal doctor and fought in World War I. At the end of Walker's life, A'Lelia wrote back to her mother during her business trip in South America to let her know she would marry the man Walker approved of. However, days after Walker died, A'Lelia married the other man. As it turns out, Walker was right in her assumptions, so A'Lelia divorced him and married the upstanding doctor later on.
Even though A'Lelia's true sexuality is still unclear as far as research goes, Bundles said that A'Lelia “had many friends who were queer [and] she welcomed them into her home." Some of her friends even lived in her home. Bundles stated that in future work she is going to explore a relationship that she possibly may have had with a female friend.
Did CJ Walker (Blair Underwood) cheat on Madam with one of her employees?
FACT: One of the things that happened in the series as it happened in real life is CJ Walker (Blair Underwood) cheating on Walker with one of her employees. On a happier note, another thing the series got right was casting Spencer as Walker, whom Bundles thought was “great" in the role.
“Through the years there have been a number of actors who wanted to [portray the role] but I am really pleased that Octavia Spencer is the person who is playing this role," she said. "...I really do see...Madam Walker, the emotional core of [her]."
Other elements of the series Bundles enjoyed were seeing Spencer and Underwood as love interests, the special attention paid to the hair and wigs in the film, and DeMane Davis' direction in episode 4, which Bundles was on set to view. “It was just such a thrill and a privilege to see her at work," said Bundles.
If there was anything Bundles would change about the series, it would be to showcase Walker's philanthropy.
“I would really focus more on Madam Walker's philanthropy and activism," she said, adding that for Walker, making money was about empowering others.
She would also want to focus more on the women of St. Paul AME Church, who mentored Walker and helped her see herself as a leader.
“For many people, that phrase [“self-made"] suggests ‘I did it all on my own'...but I think she would say that it was the women...who nurtured her and helped her see another way," said Bundles.
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