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Netflix has announced that Octavia Spencer will star in a limited series about beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker, and the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Although the contributions African Americans have made to the cosmetics industry span more than a century, the recent unprecedented success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line has shone a spotlight on black women and their relationship to beauty that’s yet to dim.
Brands that don’t include products for women of color can now expect to be called out on the oversight, and others, like Kylie Cosmetics, have made a point to be more inclusive following Fenty’s triumph. But Fenty is not the only makeup brand affiliated with a black woman that’s exceeded expectations.
Named after the famed black makeup artist who started it in 2015, Pat McGrath Labs is now valued at a staggering $1 billion — that’s $200 million more than Kylie Cosmetics. Unlike Kylie Jenner, McGrath didn’t get a Forbes cover for the accomplishment, but it’s clear that the days of black women being relegated to the margins of the cosmetics industry are coming to an end. Largely to thank for this breakthrough? Madam C.J. Walker.
Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867 to a formerly enslaved couple, Walker was truly self-made. For years she struggled to make more than a dollar a day as a laundress, but in the early 1900s she landed a job as a sales agent for the black entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone, who sold hair care products and cosmetics through her business, the Poro Company.
Walker used the knowledge she gleaned from Malone to launch her own business, selling hair care and skin care products to black women. Before long, her business expanded across the country, and Walker trained and employed thousands of black women, including Viola Desmond, the Canadian entrepreneur who made history posthumously as the first black person to appear on Canada’s $10 banknote. As Walker’s clout grew — she has long been hailed as the first black woman millionaire — she became more politically involved, donating to anti-lynching causes and preserving abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home.
But Walker’s legacy is a complicated one. Although she’s praised for using her smarts and hard work to become part of the nation’s elite during a time when such a move was nearly impossible for most African Americans, she’s faced criticism because she’s been linked to products associated with hair straightening, such as chemical relaxers and pressing combs. According to her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, Walker did not invent either the relaxer or the hot comb, as has been widely reported. Bundles said her ancestor focused more on hair growth and grooming than on hair straightening.
While Walker is a fixture in black history month lessons and even appeared on a US postage stamp in 1998, she hasn’t received a great deal of attention from the entertainment industry. In 2006, the play The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove debuted in Chicago, but the beauty mogul hasn’t been the subject of a biopic, a genre that’s mostly given black women the short shrift in recent years. The Netflix series on Walker, based on Bundles’s book On Her Own Ground, will reportedly span eight episodes, chronicling Walker’s family life, tumultuous romantic relationships, and rise to success.
Executive produced by LeBron James, Octavia Spencer, and others, the biopic offers the Hidden Figures actress the rare opportunity to play the lead in a project. Spencer is often cast in ensemble projects or side parts, famously winning a best supporting actress Oscar for 2011’s The Help. The Madam C.J. Walker series will hopefully thrust both the actress and the mogul into the spotlight simultaneously.
Today, Walker’s products are still available, thanks to a collab between Sundial Brands and Sephora that launched in 2016 to commemorate her. Now gels, exfoliators, shampoos, and conditioners can be found on sites like Sephora and QVC under the Madam C.J. Walker label.
The Netflix series could lead to a spike in sales for such products, but more importantly, it might provide viewers who got the cardboard cutout version of Walker in school (if they got any representation of her at all) with a three-dimensional portrait of a woman who realized the American dream against all odds, and who taught fellow black women about the importance of financial freedom and self-empowerment.