June 10, 1893 – Hattie McDaniel:
“Faith is the black person’s federal reserve system.”
In the Netflix series Hollywood, creator/producer/writer Ryan Murphy reimagines a showbiz that is diverse and inclusive in the era after World War II. One of the real life figures portrayed is Hattie McDaniel, best known for playing “Mammy” in MGM’s salute to slavery, Gone With The Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar.
Portrayed in Hollywood by Queen Latifah, McDaniel was a natural performer who could sing and write songs as well as act.
In addition to acting in many films, McDaniel recorded 16 Blues records between 1926–1929, was a radio performer and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States.
When McDaniel won her Oscar in 1940, she was already one of the biggest African-American film actors, having had roles in at least 67 films before her Oscar-winning performance. She appeared in over 300 films, although, of course, she received screen credits for only 83. In the early days of Hollywood, African-Americans had little chance of being cast as anything but servants. Their skin color was often darkened and they were directed to speak in “Negro dialect”.
She worked with the biggest stars of the era, including James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan. She was good friends with the Number One star, Shirley Temple. Although she was the first black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award, the moment was more of a personal victory for McDaniel than an historic achievement for the African-American community. Many black Americans thought McDaniel had been typecast in her maid and mammy roles that encapsulated many racial stereotypes.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP is a Civil Rights organization formed in 1909. But, even the NAACP disavowed McDaniel. In Gone With The Wind, she played an opinionated, headscarf-wearing slave maid, a favorite trope of the Old South. Throughout her career, McDaniel had to continually defend her decision to play the roles: saying:
”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.”
She played a maid 74 times.
She was criticized because she appeared to deliberately avoid speaking out about politics or participating in the Civil Rights cause. McDaniel was a member the Negro Actors Guild of America late in her career. She insisted that she did not wish to bring politics into her acting. Yet, when she was invited to entertain black troops during World War II, she insisted on doing a show for white troops also.
McDaniel, who was 44 years old in 1939 when she won her Oscar for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s eye-rolling maid, had suffered an even bigger humiliation just two months earlier.
It was the Golden Age of Hollywood, but it was also the height of the Jim Crow era, when laws everywhere around the country promoted racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of black people. McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend the world premiere of Gone With The Wind at Loew’s Grand Theatre in downtown Atlanta.
Clark Gable announced he would not be attending the premiere because of the color ban. Ironically, it was McDaniel who urged the outraged Gable, then one of the biggest stars in the world, to attend.
Selznick had to agree to redo the posters, removing all the black faces, before white leaders in the Deep South allowed the film to be shown in theatres.
McDaniel did attend the Hollywood debut a few days later, and the Oscar presentation in February 1940, at the Cocoanut Grove, the nightclub inside The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The Ambassador had a strict no-blacks policy.
McDaniel walked into producer David O. Selznick‘s office and dropped a stack of rave reviews for Gone With The Wind on his desk. Selznick arranged for McDaniel to be allowed into the hotel as a favor. Once inside, McDaniel was seated with an escort and her white agent at a small table near the kitchen across the room from Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, who was also nominated in the same category as McDaniel.
McDaniel arrived in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair. She was introduced at the ceremony by Fay Bainter, who called on the audience to stand and salute McDaniel. The crowd cheered as McDaniel made her way to the stage. Despite the blatant injustice, McDaniel delivered an emotional acceptance speech swiftly from her heart, expressed with deep humility as she wiped away her tears:
“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.”
It was another 24 years would before another African-American actor, Sidney Poitier, took home an Oscar in 1964, and it was half-a-century before Whoopi Goldberg became the next black woman to win in 1990 for Ghost. The 12th annual Oscars was the most incredible night of her life, yet McDaniel wasn’t allowed to go to any of the party afterwards. The party-loving McDaniel spent the night celebrating in another venue with other African-American members of the cast. After winning her Oscar, she mostly only found work playing maids.
McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her parents were freed slaves, and her father fought in the Civil War. Sam McDaniel, her brother, was also an actor, which opened the door for her early in her career. She followed him as part a traveling vaudeville troupe to Los Angeles, where she worked menial jobs while writing and singing songs, and appearing on sketch comedy radio shows, beginning in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s.
She quickly earned a reputation as a good a comic actor. She didn’t get a lot of screen time or credits for some of her first few films, but McDaniel appeared in an unprecedented nine films her first year in the biz. For Mammy, she went to the audition dressed in a 19th century maid’s uniform and booked the role.
Seven years after GWTW, she got her own radio series The Beulah Show, playing a maid, of course. It was later made into a television series in which she starred. This allowed her to buy her own home and treat herself to fur coats, a car and jewelry. But even buying house proved difficult. She had to ask for help from pals like Cagney to help her because Los Angeles was a very segregated city.
She was able to purchase a 17-room home in the West Adams Heights neighborhood. Other Black celebrities like Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers moved there too. This upset their white neighbors, so they began to set up racial covenants which restricted home ownership to white people. This wasn’t uncommon, in Portland, where I live, they called it ”redlining”, and it went on until the late 1970s. Upset that the covenants werent’ all being upheld, the white residents sued McDaniel and the other African-American residents. McDaniel organized supporters who helped get the lawsuit thrown out of court. Her case would later help the Supreme Court rule it unconstitutional for the courts to enforce restrictive housing covenants.
In Los Angeles, she couldn’t just go into just any restaurant, hotel or theater. Even many stores had a color ban.
She married four times, but she is also known to have enjoyed many affairs with women. Her most famous lover was Miss Tallulah Bankhead. Their relationship lasted for years and figures in Hollywood, the series, not the town.
McDaniel’s final credits rolled in 1952, taken by cancer at just 57 years old. Cagney was the only famous white actor at her funeral, but Gable and other big Hollywood stars sent flowers. Big of them, huh?
McDaniel left her estate to the historically black Howard University in Washington D.C. But even that final wish was denied when the IRS took the estate to pay back taxes.
The indignities just keep rollin’ along. After McDaniel’s death her Oscar Award (winners of the supporting actor categories were given gold plaques, rather than statues) went missing. McDaniel had originally donated the plaque to Howard University where it was displayed at the Fine Arts complex. By the early 1970s, the award had gone missing. Its whereabouts are still unknown.
BTW, I just hate GWTW, not just for its blatant racism, but also because it takes the longest route to the shortest points, the acting is hammy and the filmmaking is disjointed. The whole thing makes little sense to me and I am flummoxed by its appeal. I would welcome the discontinuing of showings of this movie at festivals and on television. It’s one more Confederate monument that can fall. On Wednesday, June 10, the new streaming service HBO MAX pulled the film. But not because I insisted.