In the pandemic-era Netflix series Hollywood, creator/producer/writer Ryan Murphy reimagines a showbiz world that is diverse and inclusive in the era after World War II. One of the real life figures portrayed is Hattie McDaniel (1893 -1952) best known for playing “Mammy” in MGM’s salute to slavery, Gone With The Wind (1939).
Portrayed in Hollywood by Queen Latifah, McDaniel was a natural performer who could sing and write songs as well as act.
The 12th Academy Awards ceremony honored the best in film from 1939 at a banquet at the Coconut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was hosted by Bob Hope, in his first of 19 times.
David O. Selznick‘s Gone With The Wind received the most nominations with 13, winning eight Oscars, both records at the time. It was also year the first year in where any film received ten or more nominations (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington received 11). Other firsts that year: McDaniel became the first Black person to receive an Academy Award; Mickey Rooney became the second-youngest nominee for Best Actor at 19 years old for Babes In Arms, the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar (Jackie Cooper was nominated at nine-years-old for Skippy in 1931.
In addition to acting in plenty of films, McDaniel recorded 16 Blues records between 1926–1929. She was a radio performer and television star; she was the first Black woman to sing live on radio in the USA.
When McDaniel won her Oscar, she was already one of the biggest Black film actors, having worked in at least 67 films before that Oscar-winning performance. She eventually appeared in over 300 films, although, of course, she only received screen credits for 83. In the early days of Hollywood, Black actors stood little chance of being cast as anything but servants. Their skin color was even darkened and they were directed to speak in a “Negro dialect”.
McDaniel 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 Black community. Black Americans thought McDaniel had been typecast in maid and mammy roles that were the essence of racial stereotypes.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP is a Civil Rights organization formed in 19090), even the disavowed McDaniel. In Gone With The Wind, she plays an opinionated, headscarf-wearing slave maid, a favorite trope of the South. Throughout her career, McDaniel continually defended 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 was 44 years old in 1940 when she won her Oscar for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s eye-rolling maid, and she 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. You see, McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend the world premiere of Gone With The Wind at Loew’s Grand Theatre in downtown Atlanta.
The film’s star 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 go ahead and 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 premier a few days later, and she was there for the Oscar presentation in February 1940, but The Ambassador Hotel had a strict no-Blacks policy.
McDaniel walked into Selznick’s office and dropped a big bunch of rave reviews for Gone With The Wind on his desk. Selznick then 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 way 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 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 Black 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 (for Ghost) in 1990). The 12th annual Oscars may have been the most incredible night of her life, yet McDaniel wasn’t allowed to go to any of the parties afterwards. Poor party-loving McDaniel spent the night celebrating with other Black members of the cast at a Black club. Even after winning her Oscar, she still mostly only found work playing maids.
McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas to a family of freed slaves, and her father fought in the Civil War. Her brother was a performer, and she followed him as part a touring vaudeville company to Los Angeles. She started writing and singing songs, and appearing on sketch comedy radio shows, beginning in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s
She gained a reputation as a good a comic actor. She didn’t get a lot of screen time or credits for her first few films, but McDaniel still appeared in nine films in her first year in the movie biz. For read for the role of Mammy, she went dressed in a 19th century maid’s uniform and booked the job.
Seven years later, she had 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, her own car, and jewelry. But, buying that house wasn’t easy; she had to ask for help from pals like Cagney to help her because Los Angeles was a very segregated city.
She finally purchased 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 weren’t all being upheld, white residents sued McDaniel and the other Black homeowners. McDaniel had supporters who helped get the lawsuit thrown out of court. Her case would later help the Supreme Court rule that it is unconstitutional to enforce restrictive housing covenants.
In Los Angeles, McDaniel couldn’t go into just any restaurant, hotel or theatre; Blacks had their won venues. Even retail stores had a color ban.
McDaniel married four times, but she is also known to have enjoyed affairs with women. Her most famous lover was 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 her final wish was denied. The IRS took the estate to pay her back taxes.
The indignities just kept rollin’ along. After McDaniel’s death her Academy Award (winners of the supporting actor categories were given gold plaques, rather than statues) went missing. McDaniel had originally donated it to Howard University where it was displayed at the Fine Arts complex. By the early 1970s, the award went missing. Its whereabouts remain unknown.
A little footnote: I 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. A year ago, on June 10, HBO MAX pulled the film. But not because I insisted.