By J. Coyden Palmer
Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. Tiger Woods had Phil Mickelson. Michael Jordan had, well the entire Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” teams. It’s a fact rivals bring out both the best and worst in each other.
The much-anticipated Netflix movie “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” has brought those positive and negative qualities to the forefront again in Black culture, with one exception; this movie seemed like a fist fight.
The movie veers from celebrating one pioneering African American woman, Madam C.J. Walker, to creating a firestorm within the Black community due to a script that many say trashes the reputation of another Black woman, Annie Turnbo Malone, in order to prop up the accomplishments of Walker.
The pitting of two Black women against one another is something the community expects when Hollywood does a film, but no one expected it when the chief makers of the film themselves, are prominent African Americans.
Showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, media personality Maverick Carter, NBA star Lebron James, and actress and star of the show, Octavia Spencer, were all listed as executive producers on the project.
Malone, a lesser known pioneering figure in Black women’s beauty products and a Walker business rival, was misrepresented in the movie, according to her descendants and those who know the story of Malone.
Addie Munroe, a fictional character created to mimic the rivalry between Walker and Malone in the movie, is not going over well with Black people in Chicago, or in St. Louis, where Malone was a towering figure.
“My aunt, Annie Turnbo Malone, was nothing as this Netflix series portrayed. My aunt established her business, started selling products and doing in-house demonstrations for African American women,” wrote a descendant, Sasha Turnbo, on her Facebook page that was shared over 3,300 times and garnered nearly 1,000 comments.
“Annie opened 30 plus schools all over the world, including in St. Louis, Chicago, New York and the Caribbean. Though Annie and Walker had their fallout, Annie did not stop spreading her light.”
In the movie, Malone was portrayed as a woman who was jealous of Walker’s success and one who tried to destroy her business. The movie also portrayed Malone as having less money than Walker.
However, there is an argument that can be made that Malone’s beauty school was just as large as Walker’s and her financial fortune was just as large as Walker’s, as was reported in an April 2018 article by Crusader Journalist Erick Johnson. Both women also were philanthropists, donating much of their fortune towards the advancement of Black people.
“The storyline is false and trash,” said St. Louis native and entrepreneur Alex Merritt, inventor of an intimate adult card party game, “The War on Love.”
“Annie Malone is beloved in St. Louis. Why they felt the need to add in all of this is unclear to me. The story could have been told without destroying one woman’s legacy.”
Turnbo’s comments and sentiments about the film were supported ironically, by the author of the book on which the movie was based.
A’Lelia Bundles, is the great-great granddaughter of Walker and the author of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker.”
Reached by phone earlier this week, Bundles sympathized with Turnbo’s family and wanted to set the record straight that the screenplay for the movie was not written by her and she had no decision-making power on the final results.
She encouraged people to read her original work, which was published in 2001, and a second edition updated recently, where she consistently credits Malone as a successful Black woman.
In her book, which is heavily cited, Bundles documents the relationship between Malone and Walker. She does not shy away from the beginning of their relationship nor the fact they had real conflicts.
“I always acknowledged Annie Malone as a very important entrepreneur and philanthropist. So, no one can honestly say I have diminished Annie Malone in my writing about her,” Bundles began.
“These were two women who had a conflict for reasons that I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else really knows. The rivalry between the two of them never healed.
“Though in my book, I do cite various times in the correspondence with Madam Walker and in the newspaper articles, where this is talked about by other people, and Madam Walker does attempt to extend an olive branch to Malone that is not accepted.”
Bundles explained how her book came to light as a film.
She said the dynamic in Hollywood is that a book is optioned and it is very rare for a writer to have final say over what is in a script. She said even the great horror genre writer Stephen King does not have that power when his books are made into movies.
In Bundles’ case, her book was optioned several times, including by Alex Haley, Columbia TriStar and HBO before this final time where it was turned into the Netflix movie.
She was eventually contacted by Mark Holder, whose production company Wonder Street was interested in Bundles’ work.
“I had a meeting with Mark when I was in L.A. and I liked the fact that he seemed to respect my research and work,” Bundles said.
“Part of the reason I made the decision to work with Mark is because I thought I would be involved in the conceptualization of the project. After the project was sold to Warner Bros., contractually I was given script review; that does not mean script retold, script approval, that I can veto anything or that all of my ideas are listened to.
Octavia Spencer portrays Madam C.J. Walker, Blair Underwood (left) stars as her husband Charles Walker in Netflix’s series “Self-Made.” (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)
I reviewed the scripts as each one was written. I had extensive conversations with the head writer and showrunners. Some of the ideas I suggested were incorporated and many of the ideas were not incorporated. And that is a pretty typical experience.”
Bundles added that some decisions were made by the head writer, Nicole Jefferson Asher, as to who the main characters would be, what the narrative was going to be and which characters would be created to advance the story. She said those were things that were not in her book.
“I really have to stand by the facts that were offered in my book and hope that people who want to know what I think about Annie Malone and Madam Walker’s life will read it, because the book stands on its own,” Bundles said.
Bundles explained Asher is the person who conceived the storyline and emphasis on colorism in the movie, something that is a generational hot-button topic within the Black community. The Crusader attempted unsuccessfully to reach Asher for comment on the film.
Bundles added that as a researcher, there are not as many documents on Malone’s life, particularly surrounding her finances for some of the claims that have been made about her. In contrast, there are dozens of documents that support claims of Walker’s finances and lavish lifestyle.
Sasha Turnbo claims that at one time, Malone was paying the highest amount of taxes in St. Louis of any citizen. The 2018 Crusader article cited a Philadelphia Tribune article that stated Malone had paid over $40,000 in taxes during the 1920s.
“Both the Walker company and Poro periodically would say ‘we paid this much in taxes or this is what our income is,’ and I think both of them wildly inflated the number of agents they had trained,” Bundles said.
“At one point, Malone’s company claimed they had trained 50,000 agents, but if you look at the census at that time, the number of Black women who are hairdressers, there weren’t enough Black women hairdressers for them to have trained 50,000.”
She added that like their contemporaries of today, part of the mystique of the beauty industry is creating myths and secret formulas. In essence, Bundles believes everybody was developing their own spin and their own public relations.
“At the end of the day, these are two Black women who had their own greatness and they happened to be rivals. It is not the first time that has happened and it won’t be the last” said Bundles.