I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry. – Hattie McDaniel
She loved gardenias, laughing, singing and dancing. She was the daughter of former slaves who became an Academy Award winner. She worked as a maid and she frequently played maids in her long acting career. She is best remembered for her portray of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She was Hattie McDaniel and she was a marvel who paved the way for other black actors in the highly segregated Hollywood studio system.
In addition to acting in over 300 films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S. McDaniel was befriended by many of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland and Clark Gable. She would star with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to win an Academy Award. An invitation to her yearly Christmas party was much sought after and Clark Gable was always a fixture.
The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind was almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and she won the part. As the premiere of Gone with the Wind at The Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film. Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway. She did attend the film’s Hollywood debut, and upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.
While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone with the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there. As her popularity grew she began to be criticized by some members of the black community for the roles she chose to accept and for her decision to pursue roles aggressively rather than rock the Hollywood boat. Groups such as the NAACP complained that Hollywood stereotypes not only restricted blacks to servant roles but often portrayed blacks as lazy, dim-witted, perfectly satisfied in lowly positions, or violent. In addition to addressing studios, they called upon actors, and especially leading black actors, to pressure studios to offer more substantive roles and at least not pander to stereotypes. They also argued that these portrayals were unfair as well as inaccurate and that, coupled with segregation and other forms of discrimination, such stereotypes were making it difficult for all blacks, not only actors, to overcome racism and succeed. Some attacked McDaniel for being an “Uncle Tom” — a person willing to advance personally by perpetuating racial stereotypes or being an agreeable agent of offensive racial restrictions. McDaniel characterized these challenges as class-based biases against domestics, a claim that white columnists seemed to accept. And she reportedly said: “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.” Since she was earning a living honestly, she added, she should not be criticized for accepting such work as was offered. Her critics, especially Walter White of the NAACP, claimed that she and other actors that agreed to portray stereotypes were not a neutral force but rather willing agents of black oppression. McDaniel and other black actors feared that their roles would evaporate if the NAACP and other Hollywood critics complained too loudly and she blamed these critics for hindering her career.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio and one for acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp. But perhaps her greatest achievement lay in her paving the way for other black actors to be accepted in the motion picture industry. While she certainly played stereotypes she brought a human side to every role she played. Who can forget her anguished tears when Rhett and Scarlet’s daughter dies? It takes courage to face the criticism she did for her portrayals but every role she and early black actors played brought acceptance to black actors. Inch by inch, step by step, they won the respect of Hollywood and paved the way for the Denzel Washingtons and Halle Berrys of today and it is disrespectful to her as an actor to denigrate her work by judging it by today’s standards.
Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:
“Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dressed up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”
Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech:
“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.”