Indianapolis Monthly

MAKING WAVES

“Hair is power.”

Those words help kick off the first episode of Netflix’s four-part miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. They also foreshadow a scene early on, which sets the tone for the entire story.

Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays earnest, hardworking Sarah Breedlove, a domestic servant washing other people’s clothes for pennies in the early 1900s. It’s years before she would gain fame as one of the wealthiest female business owners in the country, Madam C.J. Walker.

She’s in the St. Louis salon of Addie Monroe, played by the luminously beautiful Carmen Ejogo. Monroe has used her own hair-growth product to help Breedlove overcome a serious struggle with hair loss, trading tins of her scalp treatments for free laundry services. Breedlove sees Monroe as a friend and mentor, and has bold ideas for helping sell her products at a local street market. But when she tells Monroe she secretly “borrowed” a few tins to prove she could sell them on the street, Monroe is furious.

“Even in your Sunday best, you look like you just stepped off the plantation,” she screams, making it plain that she would never hire a dark-skinned, average-looking black woman to serve as ambassador for her high-quality hair-care products. Monroe, a light-skinned black woman, believes her fair complexion and long, flowing hair place her at a higher social station than her darker-skinned sister. At one point, she tells Breedlove: “Colored women will do anything to look like me—even if they know, deep down, that they can’t.”

The scene is set a few years before Breedlove would move to Indianapolis and create a company centered on cosmetics for black women, but her gambit hints at the ambition that would later fuel her success. Monroe’s outburst

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