While Hollywood has slowly started to embrace a more diverse landscape, inspirational depictions of African Americans prospering remain an unfortunate rarity. This year’s Oscars drove the point home quite clearly, with Cynthia Erivo as the lone black acting nominee, playing runaway slave Harriet Tubman. The same year saw snubs for Lupita Nyong’o in Us and Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is My Name, both playing more contemporary characters with agency. It added credence to the long-held suspicion that in order for a performance by a black actor to break out, there needs to be some form of abuse or subservience to gain recognition. Previous wins by Octavia Spencer in The Help, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave and Mahershala Ali in Green Book highlight this. Yes, these experiences form a majority of the black experience in America – but what does it mean that Hollywood is primarily interested in black characters overburdened with obstacles and adversity?
Thankfully, two new works, both on streaming platforms and based on true events, work to combat this trend. The Netflix bio-series Self-Made features Octavia Spencer as haircare entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker and tracks how a black woman became the first self-made female millionaire in a segregated, early-20th-century America. The other is the Apple TV film The Banker, which sees two men become two of the first black bankers in America through clever trickery, astute real estate decisions, and coaching a white man to pose as the face of their business.
A common thread linking these two narratives, separated by four decades, is the unique pressures black-owned businesses face in America. Their paths to success and prosperity are neither orthodox nor simple. For Madam CJ Walker and Joe Morris and Barnard Garrett (The Banker’s main characters), making it in America requires not only creativity. There’s also the weighted responsibility of lifting up the entire black community along with you. As Walker exclaims in one scene, pitching her haircare products to a group of black women eager to climb the ladder, “When one of us looks good, we all look good!” Walker was noted for hiring and training more than 20,000 black workers for her company. Morris and Garrett issued scores of loans to black business owners which, in the 60s, were unfairly viewed as “high-risk loans” by white bankers and frequently denied. We’re shown that a black business succeeding results in a black community succeeding too.
While Self-Made is not a perfect limited series (the acting of comedian Tiffany Haddish, who plays Walker’s daughter, falls noticeably flat), it strives to illustrate the nuanced hurdles to Walker’s rise. There are scant white characters. So the racism Walker encounters, initially, is internalized within the all-black community she lives in. Back then (and even today), black beauty hair products exalted eurocentric or “mixed” beauty ideals. In the series, Walker’s main competitor is a light-skinned black woman who uses colorism to her financial advantage, telling Walker, who is dark-skinned, “Colored women will do anything to look like me. Even if deep down they know they can’t.” Then there were the black men, like the noted activist Booker T Washington, who refused to see a beauty business as seriously advancing the “negro cause”. The confluence of sexism and racism shines bright.
Meanwhile, The Banker’s depiction of black business highlights a common adage within the community – “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.” “They” being white people, of course. Barnard Garrett is a gifted businessman able to perform complex calculations in his head while conducting intense contract negotiations. He amasses a small, but substantial, fortune through purchasing properties on the borders of white neighborhoods and leasing them to affluent black renters. But Garrett’s talent for flipping real estate is not good enough. He still encounters white businessmen who are unwilling to take him seriously because of his race in a consciously segregated LA (not a landscape modern viewers may immediately associate with such blatant racism). Garrett’s inability to turn himself into a mogul is not through lack of talent, but lack of opportunity – a reality numerous people of color were, and still are, forced to contend with.
While scenes of Garrett and Morris teaching a white handyman (played by Nicholas Hoult) math equations, golfing and the art of fine dining are framed as comedic and lighthearted, prepping him to be their stand-in for business deals, they feel like the manifestation of a deeper, darker reality in America. It’s not just about ideas and talent for black business owners.
Black-owned businesses still face serious pressures in America. For one, there’s not a lot of them. In 2012, the Census Bureau reported only 9.7% of business owners were black, compared with 83% being white. This has resulted in “buying black” growing increasingly hard, as explored by Killer Mike in an episode of his Netflix show Trigger Warning. The rapper/activist gave himself the mission of living off only products and services produced by black-owned businesses – which proved nearly impossible. Our current moment lacks a modern Madam CJ Walker, despite the purchasing power of black buyers steadily growing: 70% of beauty hair supply stores catering to black hair types are owned by Asian Americans.
Hopefully Hollywood expands on these kinds of narratives, which certainly serve more purpose than a “white savior” plotline such as that of Green Book. They remind me of black-centric films such as the Ice Cube-led, mid-aughts Barbershop franchise and its spinoff Beauty Shop. Narratives that highlight the important work done in black communities and showcase our entrepreneurial spirit. However, those films were produced for and exclusively marketed to black moviegoers.
These later works feel nuanced, yet made for a broader audience, suggesting that a major shift in representation of black narratives might be occurring in Hollywood: a move away from trauma and towards success.
Self-Made is now available on Netflix and The Banker is now available on Apple TV+