Hattie McDaniel was one of the greatest and most iconic entertainers that America ever produced. Like her contemporaries Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Robeson, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Mae West and other greats like Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper (many of whom she worked with), she defined America. Unfortunately for this great talent, the America in which she lived was one rent by racism. She toiled in Hollywood at a time when African Americans could only play socially prescribed racist stereotypes. McDaniel was limited to playing maids and nannies and the wives of “shiftless” (i.e., discriminated against and disenfranchised) black men, the most memorable of whom was the Joe of Show Boat played by that “peculiar” American genius Robeson.
Miss McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award when she was honored in 1940 with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). In her triumph were the seeds of her tragedy that tarnished her reputation for a generation and is only now being reclaimed.
Hollywood loved her performance, but still required her and her escort to sit at the back of the auditorium during the awards ceremony at the Pantages Theatre on the night of February 29, 1940, despite the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences knew who the winners were.
The press also knew, as they had every year since the Oscars were first awarded. Gone With the Wind was so popular and such an national sensation that the Los Angeles Times broke the traditional embargo over releasing the information before the Oscar ceremony was broadcast on the radio. This led to the now standard blackout on the final vote tallies, with only the representatives from the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCooper in the know until the envelopes are opened.
Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech became famous and for many years was seen as a signpost towards racial progress in America: “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
Hattie McDaniel’s fellow Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner, Mo’Nique — who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Precious in 2010 — is planning to make a biopic of the life of the great entertainer. Once relegated to the back of the room by the Academy and to the back of the pantheon of African American artists by black power advocates in the 1960s and ’70s, the great Hattie McDaniel finally is getting her due.
In her own Oscar acceptance speech, Mo’Nique honored Hattie McDaniel and dedicated her Oscar to her: “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”
Mo’Nique had worn a blue dress and a gardenia in her hair to the awards ceremony, paying homage to the same outfit that McDaniel had worn to her Oscar ceremony 60 years before.
“So for you, Miss Hattie McDaniel,” Mo’NIque told the Oscar audience as she held her Academy Award in her hand, “I feel you all over me, and it’s about time that the world feels you all over them.”
Subsequently, she told the press her plans for her biopic.
“I own the rights to Hattie McDaniel’s life story and I can’t wait to tell that story, because that woman was absolutely amazing,” Mo’Nique said in a press release.
“She had to stand up to the adversity of black and white at a time when we really weren’t accepted. Lee Daniels [who directed her Oscar-winning performance in Precious and won an Oscar himself for the screenplay] is going to direct it, of course and I’m going to be Miss Hattie McDaniel. I really hope I can do that woman justice.”
A Star is Born
Born on June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas — 30 years after the end of the Civil War — Hattie McDaniel was the 13th child born to a former slave and freedman who fought in the War Between the States for the Union. She first achieved success in Denver, Colorado, where she established herself as a musical entertainer.
She created a troupe of female minstrels (one of the dominant forms of live entertainment in the United States for a generation), the McDaniel Sisters. In 1915, the 20-year-old McDaniel became the first black woman (and arguably the first African American of either gender) to sing on the radio when she performed on a Denver radio station backed by Professor George Morrison’s Negro Orchestra.
McDaniel sang the blues, often featuring in her repertoire songs with bawdy lyrics that that she wrote herself. She toured the vaudeville circuit with Morrison’s orchestra, but when not touring, she frequently had to work as a maid to make ends meet. Vaudeville was a grueling grind for all performers but particular for black artists who encountered segregation and outright hostility as they traveled throughout the United States. Yet, she endured and thrived.
She became known as “Hi-Hat Hattie” (“High Hat” being a term for someone who styles themself a patrician) and “The Colored Sophie Tucker.” (Ironically, Sophie Tucker, the great Jewish jazz and pop singer, was billed as the “World Renowned Coon Shouter”!!!)
She was widowed in 1915 when her husband of four years died. She eventually would marry three more times.
Hattie McDaniel moved to Los Angeles in 1931 where she sang for black audiences at night in the city’s African American entertainment district in those segregated times and appeared in bit roles in movies during the day. She quickly won bigger and better parts, albeit as a supporting performer playing menials.
She was a gifted pantomimist and a natural actress. Her facility for pantomime enabled her to use body language that “signified” her disgust with the racist reality she and her characters — maids and nannies — found themselves in. Her body language conveyed defiance and an insouciance over her expected subservience to her so-called betters.
As she showed so memorably in her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, society might not consider her an equal, but she sure as hell did. Her serving dinner to Katharine Hepburn and her family in George Stevens’ Alice Adams is a wonder to behold, as her maid slaps down the plates, chewing gum and defying the Great Kate and her family to do something about it.
Yes, Hattie McDaniel was a formidable presence on screen. She had early roles as maids and servants to such stars as Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), Mae West in I’m No Angel, Jean Harlow (as well as future Gone With the Wind co-star Clark Gable and superstar Wallace Beery) in China Seas, and Jean Harlow (again), Myrna Loy, William Powell and Spencer Tracy in Libeled Lady. These servant roles not only established her but established her acting persona, which was infused with insolence towards her employers and displayed her own sense of empowerment. Her resistance, via her body language and facial expressions, was a case of “signifying” — turning the racist caricature of black maids back on to the white society that created them.
She gave an outstanding performance as Queenie in the 1936 movie version of Show Boat (she had played the role in touring companies) and had memorable roles in Twentieth Century-Fox films with the studio’s biggest stars: Shirley Temple in The Littlest Colonel (unforgettable in a scene at a river baptism of African Americans where Bill “Bohangles” Robinson explains the goings-on to the young Shirley and tells her that Hattie’s character was the type of woman whose sins could not be washed away by even the vast waters of the Mississippi River) and Will Rogers in John Ford’s Judge Priest.
Like with Clark Gable, McDaniel and Rogers became fast friends. Rogers died tragically in a plane crash in 1935, but Gable remained a loyal friend. He objected to Hattie being denied the chance to go to the Gone With the Wind premiere in Atlanta and used to be a regular at McDaniel’s parties in her home in a section of Los Angeles that she and other black entertainers bought houses in. When white neighbors sued them (incredibly) to force them from the neighborhood, it was McDaniel who rallied the defenses and defeated the racists in court.
Judge Priest featured the popular African American entertainer Stepin’ Fetchit, a highly-paid character actor who specialized in the role of the stereotypical “coon” (actually a trickster when seen through a different prism) whom Hattie McDaniel was grouped with in the post-World War II period. Both were denounced as examples of black actors willing playing racist caricatures, and Stepin’ Fetchit’s name became synonymous with Jim Crow. (Muhammad Ali, respecting him as a trailblazer for black folk, made the impoverished former star a member of his entourage in the 1960s to protect him.)
The harsh judgment was unfair to both of them, but mostly to McDaniel.
Hattie McDaniel never intentionally did anything demeaning in her roles — her most famous role as Mammy is the Earth Mother personified — but she was painted with the broad brush of perpetuating racism by black activists angered by the kinds of roles she took, which were the only roles offered to black actresses in her time. That the slave Mammy could be loving and nurturing to the child of her white masters and stay after on after the slaves were freed to care for their grandchild and run the house was seen as an unspeakable betrayal of negritude.
In the 1960s, the Academy Award she had donated to Howard University in her will allegedly was stolen by black activists and thrown in the Potomac River. When interest in McDaniel waxed in the new millennium and her reputation was restored, it became a mystery as to what had actually happened to her Oscar. It has never been found.
“Gone With the Wind“
Hattie McDaniel reached the pinnacle of her movie career with Gone With the Wind, which brought her the Academy Award, the first for an African American She became an American icon playing “Mammy,” the household servant of a white slave-owning family who was closer to Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist, than Scarlett was to her own mother.
Mammy — servants who took care of white people’s children — was a job that black folk wanted to forget about in the militant ’60s but was a common character in American literature and entertainment for over a century. Many actresses played Mammy, but none so well as Hattie McDaniel. The fact that she wouldn’t take any guff from anyone, that she understood Miss Scarlett better than anyone and could talk to her not only as an equal but as her superior in wisdom and understanding and that she could interact so effortlessly, holding her own with a superstar of the caliber of Clark Gable — perhaps the greatest male movie star in cinema history — was part of what made her Mammy an awesome creation. And that also set her up as an icon to be smashed by the iconoclasts.
It would be a half-century before another black actress, Whoppi Goldberg, would win an Oscar. (Sidney Poitier had won a Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for Lillies of the Field.) For years afterwards, Whoppi would make fun of the fact that the only other black woman to win the award was Hattie McDaniel, making Miss Hattie a punchline to her joke, but she later would produce a tribute to the trailblazing African American actress.
Goldberg’s original dissing of McDaniel was in line with the times, which unfairly held her person to be a reactionary stereotype that had to be denigrated if not forgotten. (The fact that she had to create a persona to work in Hollywood, and it was not one of subservience but of self-reliance and defiance, was forgotten for decades as black entertainers like Bill Cosby struggled to be accepted in roles that white people would normally play, such as his Emmy Award-winning role in I Spy.)
Walter White of the N.A.A.C.P. had attacked Gone With the Wind and McDaniel for perpetuating the stereotype of happy Negro slaves in the ante-bellum South. In character, McDaniel fought back, defending herself by saying the role of Mammy gave her “an opportunity to glorify Negro womanhood.”
Most white Americans and lovers of Gone With the Wind (still the most successful film at the box office in history, when factored for inflation) would be appalled to see McDaniel disrespected for playing Mammy, as Mammy was the most honorable character in the beloved film other than the doomed Melanie played by Olivia de Haviland.
McDaniel beat out de Haviland for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In her acceptance speech, Hattie said she hoped to be a “credit to her race,” humble language the next generation looked down upon.
The reality was many African American women, like Hattie herself, had had to take menial jobs as servants in white households. She told gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
Mo’Nique seems to understand this. And more power to her and to the memory of Miss Hattie McDaniel.
New York Times, “The Triumph and Pain of a Hollywood Trailblazer ” Review of the play Hattie…What I Need You To Know by Rachel Saltz
Zap 2 It, “Oscars 2010: Mo’Nique thanks Hattie McDaniel, first African-American Oscar winner?”