Hattie McDaniel: The Complicated Legacy of the First African American Academy Award Winner

February 18th, 2020

Eighty years ago, actress Hattie McDaniel made Hollywood history when on February 29, 1940, she was awarded the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance as Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND. Winning an Oscar is an enormous accomplishment for anyone but even more extraordinary considering McDaniel was the daughter of parents born into slavery and lived in an era when racism and segregation ruled the land and Blacks were openly discriminated against in every facet of life. Such was the racism during this time that the ceremony for the 1940 Academy Awards was held at a swanky, Whites only hotel. During the awards presentation, Hattie McDaniel was forced to sit relegated to a table towards the back of the venue away from her co-stars and director of GWTW. McDaniel and her black co-stars were also disinvited to the Atlanta premiere of the movie. Given this ugly backdrop it makes her win that evening even more inspiring and historically significant.

But her participation in that film came with a heavy price as she faced repeated criticism from her own community including from the venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP. According to an article in SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, the NAACP criticized McDaniel for “portraying stereotypes on screen. In 1947, McDaniels published an article in which she personally addressed her critics in Hollywood Reporter: “I have never apologized for the roles I play. Several times I have persuaded directors to omit dialect from modern pictures. They readily agreed to the suggestion. I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the mind of theater-goers. I believe my critics think the public more naive than it actually is.” McDaniel also deflected criticism by pointing out that, “I would rather play a maid in the movies than be one in real life.”

While she is given no credit for it, McDaniel at various times proved successful in her efforts to challenge the studio system. She is one of the reasons that the N word is not used in the film version of GWTW. In early drafts of the screenplay, that racial epithet is used liberally (the word is also heavily used in the novel.) But according to an article in THE ATLANTIC, McDaniel, the Black press and her Black co-stars protested the use of the word. The article cites her biographer, Carlton Jackson, who writes that “she influenced her peers to make known their feelings about its use.” Producer David. O Selznick eventually backed down and omitted the racist slur from the script. Although there was no way to know at the time, McDaniel and her Black co-stars saved the film for posterity. If GWTW had retained the use of the N word it would not have remained such a well known, popular film that would eventually air on national television, thus allowing it to be discovered by future generations.

McDaniel’s activism went beyond the studio walls and extended to the issue of housing discrimination which during her time was a common practice that was completely legal. Restrictive housing covenants were implemented as a way to prevent Blacks from moving into White neighborhoods. When McDaniel bought a home in Los Angeles, it was subject to such a covenant which legally barred her from purchasing the home. In 1945, the White residents filed a lawsuit against McDaniel and her African-American neighbors, asking the courts to enforce these racist deeds. McDaniel and the other Black residents fought back, however, eventually prevailing in court. The judge in the case stated, “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th amendment to the Federal constitution.” This case set an important precedent that lay the groundwork for a later case. Three years later in the landmark case of Shelley v. Kramer, the Supreme Court ruled that courts could not enforce racist restrictive housing covenants on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Hattie McDaniel continued to have a career in film, television and radio, even finding some success playing characters who were not the subservient domestic help. Still, she remained a controversial figure and continued to be the object of criticism. And, sadly, her success in Hollywood didn’t translate to opening the floodgates for other Black performers. It would be nearly 25 years later before another African American would be awarded an Oscar, this time for Sidney Poitier’s win for Best Actor for his performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD. I have always found the criticism of her to be unfair and misplaced when perhaps the condemnation and blame should be directed towards an industry and a racist society that so limited the opportunities of people of color in all walks of life.

One final fascinating fact about GWTW involves the premiere which was held in Atlanta. As noted earlier, McDaniel was not permitted to attend, but a young child named Martin Luther King Junior performed with his church choir at one of the events leading up to the premiere. You can’t make this stuff up. What would McDaniel and her Black co-stars have thought of the fact that a future great civil rights leader was permitted to participate in the film’s world premiere? One can only wonder.

When McDaniel accepted her Academy Award in 1940, she stated, “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” She was indeed a credit to her race-the human race.



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