While fans may have adored Netflix’s Self Made, the limited series based on the real-life of Black hair care mogul Madam C.J. Walker, critics did not, neither did Walker’s own great-granddaughter, who recently told The Undefeated that reading the script made her “cringe.”
A’lelia Bundles, who was also a journalist for ABC News for nearly 30 years and authored the best-selling book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, knows her kin’s story very well and didn’t hold back in a scathing essay about her real feelings about the series that was loosely based on her book and produced by LeBron James and Octavia Spencer.
She opens her op-ed describing the initial excitement of seeing Walker’s story taken from the page to the small screen and feeling the pressure of having to tell the media that she loved the project, feeling that she had to “measure” her words so she didn’t ruin its rollout. When in reality, she was frustrated and disappointed with the process and upon reading the final scripts, Bundles said she “cringed.”
“When I finally received the script for episode one in the spring of 2019, I was beyond shocked. What I hoped would impress me instead made me cringe. It also broke my heart. I had been anticipating Hidden Figures. Instead, The Real Housewives of Atlanta was staring back at me from the page,” wrote Bundles.
Part of that cattiness and unnecessary violence she is referring to played out between Walker and the fictional character Addie Monroe, who was based on real-life rival, Annie Turnbow Malone. While both women were in competition with one another, the writers of the series made Annie light-skinned, depicting their adversarial relationship as some by-product of colorism, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Bundles called this revisionist history “concocted colorism and [saw] relatively little about Walker’s philanthropy and political activism.”
That, and neither one rumbled in the streets.
“I had hoped that the Malone relationship would be handled with nuance,” I wrote in my notes. “I certainly didn’t expect the conflict to devolve into a reality television fight with the kind of profanity that I just don’t believe was the norm for women like Madam Walker and Annie Malone during the early 1900s. Both women were leading other black women with a kind of respectability politics that would have made screaming ‘b—-es and n—as’ quite unlikely.”
Bundles admitted that seeing all the negative reviews and harsh Black Twitter feedback was especially hard, especially since t she had the same issues critics had with the series.
“I was shut out of story development conversations and critical pitch meetings with Warner Bros. and Netflix. The issues that bothered many critics also had bothered me. But because my contract with Warner Bros. granted me ‘script review,’ rather than script approval, there was no obligation for the production team to incorporate my suggestions.”
One particular critique hit her hard, writing, “I was not surprised when one movie reviewer sent me a private Twitter message saying that ‘Madam Walker deserved better.’ It doesn’t make me happy to say that I’d seen that coming.”
Bundles also wrote that when creating biopics in Hollywood, execs disregarding the family’s concerns isn’t new or rare.
“I also knew that the Hollywood production process often relegated authors to the sideline, and disregarded families and facts in favor of drama and manufactured conflict. I’d seen how Green Book had been a box-office hit, but left pianist Don Shirley’s family feeling betrayed because his life and relationships had been distorted,” she wrote.
Yet, Bundles is writing a new book about Walker’s daughter A’Lelia Walker, called The Joy Goddess of Harlem, that should be out next year, and has her fingers crossed that the next group of Black writers and directors that will tackle that story will do so with more respect and care than Self Made.
Read Bundles’ Undefeated piece in its entirety here.