Hattie McDaniel has the distinct honor of being the first black actor in history to win an Academy Award. On February 29th, 1940, she defied the odds and beat four white actresses, including her own co-star Olivia de Havilland, to win that Oscar gold. This was, and remains, an incredible accomplishment. And as much as Tinsel Town likes to gives itself a pat on the back for this amazing moment, we must always remember to take off the rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Classic Hollywood. Yes, she won the Award but because the Oscars were held at the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, she almost wasn’t even allowed into the Ceremony. The hotel was a white only establishment and Producer David O Selznick had to pull in some favors to just to get her into the building. Even then, she was still segregated from her white counterparts. While Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were seated at a large, lavish table in the near the front of the room, McDaniel was forced to sit at a small table in the back with her escort and agent to keep her company. This constant contradiction, simultaneous praise and racial humiliation, is perhaps one of the defining traits of McDaniel’s career.
Clearly we need to the brouche-watch back in style
Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas to two former slaves. Lets just digest for a moment. The woman who broke racial barriers through her Academy Award winning portrayal of a slave was the child of two slaves. The irony in this is so hard, Alanis Morissette might have to do a remix…but I digress. After both her parents were freed due to a little thing called the 13th amendment to Unites States constitution, Henry and Susan McDaniel went on to pursue careers in performance. Henry moonlighted as minstrel performer when not preaching the word of God and Susan spent her time as gospel singer. Just like her parent’s, Hattie showed an aptitude for performance, even winning an elocution contest in her middle school years. She attended Denver East High School, where she was active in the theater club but eventually dropped out to join her father’s minstrel show.
The show consisted almost entirely of the McDaniel Family… guess I forgot to mention that McDaniel had 12 older siblings. During those years entertaining with her family, McDaniel honed her songwriting abilities, eager to become a multi-talented performer. When her brother, Otis, passed away in 1916, the troupe broke up. Although she formed an all-female minstrel troupe with her sister, it didn’t pay the bills and the next few years would be difficult for McDaniel. Outside of her minstrel show, she worked several additional jobs just to make ends meet. It’s also during this she would start to develop a character that would come to define her career for better or for worse: the sass-talking, all-wise mammy.
Hattie McDaniel – the beta version
McDaniel finally caught a break in 1920 when she joined Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, one of the most respected all black touring companies in Denver. She toured with them for 5 years, before returning to Denver to embark on a radio career. In 1925 she sang live with the Melody Hounds on Denver radio, thus making her one of the first black women to sing on public American radio. Obviously this is a woman of many “firsts.” She began recording jazz singles for Okeh and Paramount records, her career steadily rising throughout the late 1920s. Everything seemed fine and dandy but then the stock market crash and Hattie was basically at square one, once again.
After the crash, McDaniel took whatever employment came her way. She ended up working as bathroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The club, of course, was white-only, but that didn’t stop McDaniel from pestering the owner to let her sing. Her tenacity paid off and the owner finally, though very reluctantly, let her sing. Before long McDaniel was out of the bathroom and onto the stage, becoming a regular fixture in front of the Club Madrid spotlight.
McDaniel finally arrived to Hollywood in 1931 and continued to build her career. She once again populated the radio waves, appearing on the show The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour. In the show, she played the stereotypical sassy-black maid constantly at odds with her rich white employers. In another bit of life’s cruel irony, despite her massive popularity in the show, her salary was still incredibly low and the actress had to moonlight as an actual maid to keep herself afloat.
In early 1932 McDaniel began getting uncredited film roles, usually as a background singer. Later that year she was finally offered a more substantial role in the film The Golden West as a maid. The next year she was cast in the incredibly successful Mae West vehicle I’m No Angel as a…yup, you guess it, a maid. Over the next couple years, she would appear in a dozen uncredited roles, usually as the subservient maid. In 1934 she joined the Screen Actors Guild. Now with the union backing her, she was able get more attention and larger roles.
Hattie’s first major role was in the John Ford film Judge Priest along side Will Rogers. Ford was quite impressed with her talents and added scenes (at the expense of others) specifically to showcase them. The role helped McDaniel keep a busy schedule, appearing in 14 films in the year 1935 alone. Her most prominent part came from the George Steven romance Alice Adams. Like the rest of her previous roles, McDaniel played the sassy maid to white family. That year she also appeared in China Seas with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, whom she formed a strong friendship with.
Hattie McDaniel looking absolutely radiant
At this point in her career, McDaniel was probably the most popular black actress in America. And although McDaniel faced the humiliation of racial segregation, she was able to maintain her friendships with many of Hollywood’s top white stars such as Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Henry Fonda just to name a few. This fame, however, also opened her up to criticism from the black community. The criticism came from her willingness to accept and play stereotypical roles such as subservient cooks and maids. Organizations such as the NAACP saw her work as demeaning, degrading, and simply untrue in its representation to the modern black experience. Many called for her to fight the racist Hollywood system, rather than aggressively pursue roles that made it clear her people were seen as nothing but second-class citizens. Although completely understanding of her critics, Hattie worked to add at least some black representation on the silver screen. She also is quoted as stating, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
In the late 1930’s casting began for the David O’ Selznick’s big screen adaption of Gone with the Wind. Although McDaniel seemed like a natural choice to play the role of Scarlett’s loyal but highly opinionated house slave, Mammy, there was plenty of competition for the role. Apparently even the president’s maid wanted in on the action. McDaniel also appeared to be at somewhat of a disadvantage due to her reputation as a comedic actress and her lack of dramatic roles. However, when McDaniel walked into her audition in her own maid’s uniform, the role was hers and the rest is Hollywood history.
The premiere of the film turned out to be a major ordeal for all the black actors involved with the production. The film was set to screen at Lowe’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, because, well, where else other than Atlanta could you have a premiere of Gone with the Wind. Although Selznick wanted McDaniel at the premiere, MGM advised all of the film’s black actors not to attend due to Georgia’s strong Jim Crow laws. Because of his great friendship with McDaniel, Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Grand Theatre premier if she wasn’t permitted to attend. McDaniel, however, convinced him to attend it anyway. Although she was not able to attend the Atlanta premiere, she was featured front and center at the Hollywood premiere a week later. Once again, we see a career caught in contradiction. Although Hollywood wouldn’t fight for her right to attend the premiere in Atlanta, they did praise her on their own turf.
The film, to the surprise of no one, was a gigantic hit. Critics loved it and audiences flocked to see it. McDaniel’s was praised for her equally comical and endearing portrayal of Scarlett’s closest confidant. And as we know, her efforts were rewarded at the 12th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony, when she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Not only was she the first black actor to win an Academy Award, she was also the first to attend the Award’s banquet. She understood how momentous this was, for a black woman to win a white man’s award and ended her 67-second long acceptance speech with the words: “I sincerely hope I will always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
Despite this honor, she and her black escort were forced to sit a segregated table, far away from the rest of Gone With the Wind cohorts. Yes, she may have broken barriers that night, but she was still forced to sit alone and she was still prevented from going to any of the after parties. And although the film solidified her status as Hollywood’s leading black actress, she was still targeted by black activists who remained critical of her choice to play the role of subservient houses slave with seemingly no children, no family, and no ambition in life other than to serve those who take residence in Tara. For being such a momentous occasion in Hollywood, it certainly seemed like a lonely one for Hattie.
A tearful Hattie McDaniel accepting her Oscar.
As I said earlier, this combination of career success and racial humiliation is at the heart of McDaniel’s story. She worked hard, aggressively pursuing roles to further her career, no matter what the role. And yes, that came at a cost. Very few of her roles had an inherent dignity, as they were nothing but trite stereotypes showing the black woman as nothing but a highly opinionated, loud mouthed but ultimately non-threatening maid there to serve her white employers. However, through the relationships she formed outside of the screen, she created a black presence in white Hollywood that showed her white counterparts that stereotype simply wasn’t true. She showed them that despite the racism, humiliation, and overall degradation that black people faced not only in Hollywood but around the country, they could hold their heads up high while working in system designed to keep them down. She not only won the Academy Award but she won the respect of Academy, showing them people of color are more than just the stereotypes that are written about them. McDaniel showed the white public what black people knew all along, that her people are first class and dignified.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub