When it comes to the seemingly inexhaustible stream of films adapted from books, an age-old question inevitably arises: Do you read the book first or see the film? As one who finds merits in both approaches—as well as that rogue third option of picking one or the other and leaving it at that—I’m not here to judge; but when it comes to films inspired by real lives, most would agree on the benefits of fact-based context.
Netflix’s recent limited series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (our partner in launching The Glow Up 50) was rightly based on the seminal work on its subject, the sprawling biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by journalist A’Lelia Bundles, who is also Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and named for Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia. Bundles also served as a consultant on Self Made, but as Hollywood productions customarily do, the “inspired by” series took liberal artistic license with Walker’s legacy.
As a fan of both the self-made millionaire and philanthropist and her progressive patroness daughter, I was one of many viewers both entertained by Netflix’s highly fictionalized portrayal of Walker and disappointed by the distortion of crucial facts in her life and rise. I recently touched on the issue while promoting the reissue of filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s 1989 Walker documentary Two Dollars and a Dream, suggesting it as a helpful supplement to Self Made and weighing the question of whether entertainment value should supersede historical accuracy. So when Bundles herself reached out in response, I jumped at the chance to further discuss the issue and the making of the series—as well as her ongoing work to further cement the Walker legacy in American history.
“I’ve been working on this for literally all my life—even when I wasn’t intentional about it,” Bundles surmises, crediting her grandfather Marion R. Perry, husband of A’Lelia Walker’s adopted daughter Mae, with sparking her early interest in Walker’s legacy. While a graduate student at Columbia University, she began to formally research both her family and America’s history; a journey that would last 25 years before On Her Own Ground was published in 2001. To her, it was “a labor of love” in the truest sense. In that quarter-century, Bundles also became a respected journalist, producer, and executive for the news bureaus of ABC and NBC, where she says she “really developed those great skills of telling other people’s stories—and my own family story was as interesting if not more interesting than almost everything else I was doing in my job.”
“But whether anybody ever published anything that I wrote, I think I was obsessed to tell the story because I realized how inspiring this story was to other people,” she later adds. “And I also realized, as a journalist, that it was really important for me to stick to the facts; that because I was writing the very first major biography of a woman who already should have been in our history books, I needed to get it right.”
With such a strong investment in not only her family legacy but fact-based reporting, Bundles understandably had her own issues with Self Made’s inaccuracies. Of particular concern was the plotline borrowed from the real-life rivalry between Walker and former employer-turned-competitor and fellow self-made millionairess Annie Turnbo Malone, whose professional attributes and conflict with Walker form part of the composite for the similarly named fictional character “Addie Munroe” (portrayed by Carmen Ejogo). However, the similarities end there.
Adapted for the screen by a predominantly black female roster that included writer Nicole Jefferson Asher (Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart); showrunners Janine Sherman Barrios (Claws) and Elle Johnson (Bosch) and producer/directors Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) and DeMane Davis (Queen Sugar), Self Made’s Munroe is more a plot device than based on any singular person. She is, by turns, a flamboyant fashion plate, ambitious entrepreneur, conniving colorist, necessary nemesis and, thanks to an unfortunate yet recurrent boxing motif, a literal sparring partner for Octavia Spencer’s Walker.
In contrast to the portrayal, all surviving images of Malone suggest she cut a rather modest figure in life, yet was every bit as much the educator, philanthropist and successful businesswoman as the more socially savvy Walker. But despite the fact that there were far more similarities between the two women—including skin tone—than either the script or the casting of Ejogo suggests, in Bundles’ opinion, the obvious and unfortunate similarity between the names “Addie Munroe” and “Annie Malone” conflate the sinister character with the real-life entrepreneur and philanthropist.
“I just think people feel gaslighted if you tell them, ‘Oh no, this isn’t Annie Malone,’ I just don’t think people buy that,” she says. “[M]any people who already knew something about the two women knew that there was a rivalry between them…Now, there are many people who are going to believe that part of Madam Walker’s rivalry with her competitor had to do with colorism and had to do with her being rejected by a light-skinned woman. And I just think that changes the dynamic of our understanding of history,” she concludes.
Nevertheless, Bundles won’t deny nor diminish the broader issue of colorism as depicted in Self Made, whether in Walker’s era or the present day.
“Obviously, it is something that still is a divisive factor in our community; it has not gone away,” she says. “I imagine—I don’t have any sort of in-your-face [evidence that] somebody told Madam Walker she was dark and ugly, just that it had to have happened at some point in her life—but I don’t have a specific example. But it could have been entered into the narrative without it being between Madam Walker and the Addie Munroe character because now it takes on a different life,” she maintains.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bundles included a good deal of research on Malone in On Her Ground. In fact, she says, she “bent over backwards to try to be factual” in hopes of giving readers a balanced and well-informed perspective on these two remarkable women. Sadly, despite Bundles’ input, their true dynamic never made it onto the screen.
“I was seeing the script essentially after everything was pretty much approved, but I was able to, as they say, ‘give notes,’” she explained. “And I knew from the first script that I saw—where this relationship had been centered on a fight between two women—that gave me pause. I was not comfortable with that, and I said so,” she added, noting that she accordingly “anticipated the firestorm that was going to come” as a result of the fictionalization.
“I don’t know everybody who cares about Madam Walker, but I certainly know the people who had gravitated toward her story long before the Netflix series. I had some sense of what the constituency was, what the community was—the little girls who do their Black History Month and Women’s History Month reports [on Walker], the beauticians who see her as a patron saint, the entrepreneurs who are interested in her, the scholars,” Bundles continued, “and I didn’t think that was what they wanted to see. But the creatives on [Self Made] really thought that was the way they could tell a compelling story, so that was really their decision.”
So why, some have asked, did Bundles allow the first studio depiction of her great-great-grandmother’s story to be “inspired by” rather than wholly authentic?
“Nothing is all bad and nothing is all good; you know, you have to deal with it,” she responds. “It wasn’t about me letting somebody do something…that’s the way this process is...I tried to offer suggestions and some of my suggestions were accepted and some of them were not.
“I intentionally did not say a lot before the series came out because I really did not want the story to be about what I thought—otherwise, then it becomes ‘Well, this is what A’Lelia Bundles said…’ and people run with that,” Bundles later adds. “And then, that obscures the first real opportunity for some people to really watch [Self Made] and be inspired by it and to see what I think was a great performance by Octavia Spencer and to see some of the really great things about the series...I didn’t want to take away the shine from that moment in any way,” she continues. “And now, I’m really hopeful that at least there’s some percentage of those people who will buy the book!”
I revisited Bundles’ new edition of On Her Own Ground—now retitled Self Made—via audiobook, appropriately narrated by the author herself (Bundles recorded the updated edition in February, ahead of Self Made’s premiere). In addition to a timeline that follows Walker’s birth as the first free child of formerly enslaved parents in Louisiana to her days as a St. Louis washerwoman to the entrepreneurship that would take her from the mountains of Denver to the heights of New York City society, Bundles paints a vivid and engrossing picture of an equally evolving America during Walker’s lifetime. As she explained, it’s yet another opportunity to make sure the true story of the Walker women is told; I’d posit that it’s also an opportunity for viewers to enjoy Self Made without the burden of truth overshadowing its legitimate entertainment value.
“We’re all interested in making sure that as the stories come online in Hollywood that we are not miseducating people,” Bundles says. “Yes, we want people to be entertained; we want them to be eager to know more. But we don’t want people to walk away and really distort history.”
Now authoring a biography on her namesake A’Lelia Walker due for publication in 2021—a story Bundles maintains is “much more interesting than the myth”—the author would gladly take her family’s history back to the screen. She even muses about the idea of teaming up with filmmaker and longtime friend Nelson—grandson of former Walker Company exec F.B. Ransom and son of former president A’Lelia Ransom Nelson—for a co-produced follow-up to his documentary.
In the interim, there are other aspects of the Walker legacy to celebrate: Bundles is the historical consultant on the line of Walker-inspired hair products relaunched by Sundial co-founder Richelieu Dennis, who also purchased Walker’s former Irvington, N.Y. estate Villa Lewaro to repurpose as an incubator for black female entrepreneurs. In addition to that notable national historic landmark, the Madam Walker Legacy Center, housed in the company’s original Indianapolis headquarters, will reopen later this year after a $15 million renovation.
Like her famed predecessors, Bundles is standing on her own ground, continuing her family legacy on her own terms—and despite any holes in Self Made’s portrayal, she remains grateful for the opportunity to introduce future generations to the story of Madam C.J. Walker.
“I am really just overjoyed that all of these pieces have come together,” she says, later adding: “Bottom line is that now a lot more people are going to know about Madam Walker’s story—and the truly curious and intellectually stimulated people will dig a little bit more deeply.”
A’Lelia Bundles’ Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker is available at online retailers now.