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‘Netflix and engage’: viewing guide to Madam Walker series

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Madam C.J. Walker is a legend. Born Sarah Breedlove, Walker worked as a laundress before becoming an entrepreneur and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the first female self-made millionaire in the country.

Now, thanks to the Netflix original series “Self Made,” Walker’s story is being shared around the world. But how much of what the series shows about Walker is true? 

Tyrone Freeman, professor of philanthropic studies at IUPUI, studied Walker’s life and philanthropy as part of his doctoral project. The series, he said, is a highly fictionalized adaptation of Walker’s life. 

“It deviates significantly from the historical record,” he said. “They made some decisions to add and develop new types of drama that aren’t necessarily a part of her story. I was surprised, because Madam Walker’s life was already dramatic and had a lot of highs and lows.”

Among the fictionalizations, Freeman cited a dramatized argument between Walker and Booker T. Washington. Further, the character of Sweetness, whose questionable money helps Walker boost her business, was created for the series. 

Despite some inconsistencies with reality, A’Lelia Bundles — a researcher and Walker’s great-great-granddaughter — is happy her ancestor’s name and story is being shared. 

“One of the things that’s so good for me about the series is that more people around the world know Madam Walker’s name,” Bundles said. “Even now, people can see their own struggles in Madam Walker’s life. … She had little formal education, she was a laundress who was able to transform herself and empowered other women.” 

The series was based on Bundles’ 2002 biography of Walker, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.” While she concedes that some of the storylines in “Self Made” were historically inaccurate, one of the biggest disagreements she has with the series is its title. 

“Empowering other women was very much a part of her story,” Bundles said. “When she was Sarah Breedlove, she was mentored by women who were close to her, they gave her a vision of herself as something other than a laundress.”

Both Freeman and Bundles recommend fans of the Netflix series research Walker to understand her full story. 

“Follow up,” Freeman said. “If you enjoy the series, I encourage [you] to read about Madam Walker through electronic archives. ..I call it ‘Netflix and engage.’ Learn about what actually happened. Build upon entertainment to find out about what was really going on and how that can apply to your life today.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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