Hot on the heels of Westchester-filmed The Irishman racking up ten Oscar nominations, streaming service Netflix has announced that Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer will star as America’s first self-made woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, in a four-part limited series depicting the healthcare mogul’s life.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker will be available to stream on Netflix beginning March 20. The story pulls from the book On Her Own Ground, written by Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. For anyone unfamiliar with this local historical icon, her life was nothing short of astounding.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on the Louisiana plantation where her parents and older siblings had been kept as slaves, Walker was an orphan by age 7, and became a child bride by 14 to escape domestic abuse at home. By 17 she was a mother, and by 20 a widow. She remarried in 1894, left her second husband in 1903, moved to Denver in 1905, and married her third husband, advertising salesman Charles Joseph Walker, the following year.
Around the same time, Breedlove, now Walker, began selling hair care products specifically aimed at the underserved African American community door-to-door. Combining knowledge gleaned from her older brothers — who had been barbers — and from working with future rival Annie Malone, Walker began a wildly successful direct sales and mail-order business. Eventually, profits turned Walker into the country’s very first self-made woman millionaire.
Walker’s life was also filled with philanthropy, a fact the Netflix series will likely spend quite a bit of time on. Beyond sales, Walker used her position and company to educate women, especially young black women, on how to care for their hair and bodies, as well as support various African American business and social groups, including the National Negro Business League and the burgeoning NAACP.
Walker commissioned Vertner Teandy, the first licensed black architect in New York City, to design her a home in Westchester’s Irvington that could serve as a place for African American community leaders to gather and for others to better themselves. “Villa Lewaro” cost $250,000 in 1917 — a little over $5 million today accounting for inflation.
From Irvington she contributed to the preservation of Frederick Douglas’ home in Anacostia, made what was then the largest pledge in NAACP history — $5,000 (about $72,000 today) — and bequeathed nearly $100,000 to individuals, groups, and orphanages. When she died in 1919, the average annual salary for an American was $750. Walker was worth an estimated $600,000.
The Netflix series premiers March 20 at 3 a.m. EST and stars Octavia Spencer as Walker, as well as Blair Underwood as Charles Walker, Tiffany Haddish as their daughter, A’Lelia, Carmen Ejogo as Addie Monroe, as well as Garrett Morris, Kevin Carroll, and Bill Bellamy, and was produced in part by Spencer and LeBron James under his production company SpringHill Entertainment.
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