Historians Throw Shade at Colorism Conflict in Netflix’s ‘Self Made’ Madam C.J. Walker SeriesHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, popular culture, television, consumer goods, Madam C.J. Walker
If ever there was a bio made for the screen, it was Madam’s.
When the four-part Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walkerpremiered on March 20, viewers hunkered down to watch, hoping for an uplifting respite from mounting coronavirus anxiety. Not all liked what they saw: a “colorism” feud that, Walker scholars say, was cut from Hollywood whole cloth.
Colorism is discrimination by members of the same racial group targeting those with darker skin. In Self Made, it is spun into a central theme, pitting the dark-complexioned Walker, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, against her fictionalized business rival, the villainous, lighter-skinned Addie Monroe, played by Carmen Ejogo. The friction between the two is dramatized through repetitive fantasy scenes in a boxing ring, where the women furiously punch the air with gloved fists from their opposing corners.
Although the series’ writers have said Monroe is a composite character, those who know Walker’s story see a barely veiled — and considerably lightened — version of the real black-hair-care magnate Annie Turnbo Malone.
Both women became millionaires, though who got there first is arguable. What’s not in dispute: the negligible difference in skin tone between the two. Their rivalry was all about business.
Critics of Self Made could not contain their indignation over Walker’s life narrative being twisted into a colorism-fueled cat fight, an early 1900s Real Housewives. The Association of Black Women Historians convened a Self Made webcast in which they urged directors and writers to collaborate with historians “to offer storytelling that is authentic.”
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