'Self Made' on Netflix: The Real Life Story of Madam C.J. Walker

Self Made is the latest Netflix drama, telling the story of Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove (played by Octavia Spencer), a 19th-century woman who built a haircare empire that made her one of America's richest people—and the country's first black female millionaire. She also used her wealth to become a great philanthropist, donating her earnings to a number of black charities and educational scholarships.

The Netflix series (whose full title is Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker) is based on biography On Her Own Ground, written by the entrepreneur's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles. Speaking to The Wrap, Spencer said of this book: "I used that as my bible, and it was wonderful having [Bundles] involved in [the show]. Without her work, there's so many details we would never have known about Madam."

The real-life story of Madame C.J. Walker

Born in December 1867, Sarah Breedlove was the child of Louisiana sharecroppers. She was their fifth child, and the first born free following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

Before marrying C.J. Walker (played in Self Made by Blair Underwood), she was married at 14, had a daughter, and then became a widow by 20. When her daughter A'Lelia (played as an adult by Tiffany Haddish) was two, the pair moved to St. Louis, where Sarah met her second husband, and then to Denver, where she set up her business with just over a dollar in savings.

self made netflix true story
Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker/Sarah Breedlove in 'Self Made' Netflix

After she began losing her hair to a scalp disorder, she developed the so-called "Walker system," a haircare system advocating looking after black tresses with scalp preparations, pomades, lotions and iron combs. She then created several products, such as Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Grower and Glossine.

She began selling these products directly to black women, who were frustrated by the hair products sold to them by white businesses. As her business expanded, she went from selling her products herself to hiring a team of saleswomen who she called "beauty culturalists."

She divorced Walker, but kept his name for her business, which at its peak hired over three thousand employees, most of whom were her black "beauty culturalists."

Sarah quickly became a black icon and aspirational figure, who was able to achieve many of the trappings of wealth some had thought were only available to white people. However, she never stopped trying to help her fellow African Americans. She set up educational scholarships, donated to organizations like the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute among others up to her death in 1919 at the age of 51.

Speaking to The Wrap, Spencer said of the character she is playing, "I think black women feel the same way about their hair as white women do—we all have a love-hate relationship with our hair. What Madam did was create a narrative and a space for black women to be empowered and to feel beautiful. And with that beauty and confidence become empowered and take charge of their own destiny. So I think that story is universal. You don't have to be a black woman to understand that."

Self Made is streaming now on Netflix.

'Self Made' on Netflix: The Real Life Story of Madam C.J. Walker | Culture