By Jazmine Kelley ::
On February 29, 1940 the doors of segregated Hollywood were kicked open for a night as Hattie McDaniel accepted an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This was an historical landmark because it preceded the Civil Rights movement and sparked heated debate over what roles an African American should play in Hollywood.
Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1895 to Susan and Henry McDaniel. She grew up in a era of blackface minstrel and vaudeville shows where racist attitudes and stereotyped portrayals of plantation slaves and free blacks were disseminated as mass entertainment. The mocking caricatures depicted blacks as obedient, dimwitted, docile slaves or former slaves lamenting his or her freedom. At a young age, Hattie could be found performing at home, in church, and at carnivals accompanied by her brother, later dropping out of high school to perform in her brother’s minstrel troupe. She made a name for herself in her hometown of Denver, Colorado and produced the first all women’s minstrel show in 1914.
Discrimination and segregation made it difficult to build her career through the first half of the 20th century, but Hattie was determined. She worked the vaudeville circuit as a blues singer with her own material, traveling to New York and Chicago before planting roots in Los Angeles. She began a steady rise in popularity, taking on Broadway productions like Show Boat and The Little Colonel, and starring in films that caught the attention of Hollywood producers before landing the role that would solidify her place in history.
In the 1939 theater premiere of Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel played her character, Mammy, the House Servant, as a no-nonsense black woman with smart, quick-witted opinions of Scarlett O’Hara, the lead played by Vivian Leigh. With this singular role, she altered preconceived notions and representations of African American women in film. Despite this, she was seated at a small table away from the main cast and crew during the Academy Award ceremony and required special permission to enter the whites only hotel. Still, she accepted her award with grace and poise.
An Oscar win typically provides more acting opportunities and leading roles, and the platform to become an inspiration in the acting world. This was not the case for Hattie. She was routinely relegated to the “Mammy” role when she did find work. Despite these career setbacks, Hattie still found work entertaining troops during World War II. She promoted the sale of war bonds to support the military—a strong voice that urged African Americans to get involved with their country. After buying her house in an upscale neighborhood in South Harvard Los Angeles, she would hold amazing parties and was particularly well known for providing her Hollywood peers with a small stage in her home to perform and create.
Her achievements and great success did not come without censure. Hattie was criticized by the NAACP and other African Americans for the maid and Mammy roles that she took on. Hattie defended herself by declaring, “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
In 1947, she accepted the lead role of Beulah Brown on The Beulah Show, a popular radio program. As with many of the roles she took on, Hattie gave her character a multifaceted persona. In 1951, Hattie started filming for the television version of The Beulah Show when she suffered a heart attack and was later diagnosed with breast cancer. After personal and professional hardships, she passed away a year later in 1952. Her death was mentioned briefly in the Oregonian.
Hattie’s character in Gone with the Wind is well known and beloved. In Hattie’s time, to be a person of color in a segregated Hollywood meant outward conformity and inward protest. Her story is that of many people of color in the world today who are fighting and speaking out for positive recognition and representation.
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
- Darryl Lyman, Great African-American Women (Gramercy Books, 2000).
- Allana Radecki, “Edward Mapp, African Americans and the Oscars: Decades of Struggles and Achievement 2nd ed.” Black Camera 1.1 (2009): 191-93
- Jackson Carlton, “Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel” (Madison Books, 1990).
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Jazmine Kelly, Project Manager
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