Why We Need To Talk About Hattie McDaniel Before #OscarsSoWhite

Photo: SNAP/REX Shutterstock.
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind.
Seventy-six years ago, Hattie McDaniel stepped onto the stage at the 12th Academy Awards to accept her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first African American performer to be nominated and win an Academy Award.

McDaniel means a lot to me. I had the distinct privilege of being plopped down in front of the TV as an impressionable eight-year-old and made to watch a five-hour movie called Gone With The Wind (thanks, Dad). The movie is one of my all-time favorites — despite my later realizations about how problematic it is. (That scene where Rhett Butler carries Scarlett O'Hara up the stairs? Yes, little Anne, that’s rape. And Mammy, Scarlett's spirited, long-suffering slave maid (played by McDaniel) whom I both revered and feared. She was kind of gruff and prickly, yet I also really wanted her to hug me.) The plot, which follows the Georgia-based O’Hara family through the Civil War and its aftermath, is riveting. The performances (if not the ingrained racism) have stood the test of time in a way that most acting of that era hasn’t — Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett throws shade like nobody’s business. The love story between Rhett and Scarlett inspired one of the most iconic lines of dialogue ever. And, if I’m being truly honest, I can’t resist a fabulous ball gown.

And so, when I read Michael Gordon Bennett's “Letter To Hattie McDaniel," in which he imagines explaining #OscarsSoWhite to the actress (who died in 1952), I had two immediate thoughts:

1. I realized I haven’t watched Gone With The Wind this year and really must plot a way to convince my roommate that old-timey movies can be just as good as House Hunters.

2. It struck me that, in yet another year of #OscarsSoWhite, McDaniel’s performance as Mammy, and her Oscar win, seem particularly worth remembering.

Some background: McDaniel’s win in 1940 was a landmark moment, the significance of which was not lost on the audience at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which still had a strict “no blacks” policy. GWTW producer David O. Selznick had to pull some strings to get McDaniel cleared to attend the ceremony, and even then, she and her date had to sit at a segregated table for two way in the back.

“To me, it seems more than just a plaque of gold,” said presenter Fay Bainter before welcoming McDaniel to the stage (they gave out plaques back then for the supporting categories). “It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls and enables us to embrace the whole of America.”

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It would be easy here to fall into a nostalgia trap that glorifies the past and glosses over its unpleasantries. It’s the same impulse that makes some people wish we could wear flouncy hats and drink tea with Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess as Carson clucks disapprovingly in the background, all while completely disregarding the fact that a large chunk of the British population still lived in abject poverty in the years following World War I.

But back to Hattie McDaniel. The daughter of two former slaves, she became one of the most famous Black actresses in Hollywood.

Well, that’s one narrative.

Here’s the other: A couple of months before taking home her Oscar, McDaniel was barred from the Atlanta premiere of her own soon-to-be-blockbuster movie. Segregation laws made it illegal for her to enter the “Whites Only” theater.

In fact, her Oscars speech, in which she thanked the Academy for “one of the happiest moments of my life,” was written for her by the studio and included this phrase: “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

Obviously, as Bennett writes in his HuffPo letter to McDaniel, a lot has changed since 1939:

“Much of American society is desegregated and we have full voting rights now, but as you might imagine, we still have pockets of society resistant to this newer reality, but that probably comes as no surprise.

"We have an African American president now, how cool is that? And just to let you know, he’s done an amazing job despite strong resistance from an opposing party hell-bent on destroying his many accomplishments using coded racial language as a tool. It’s a language more reminiscent of the blunt racist attitudes of 1940.”

Photo: SNAP/REX Shutterstock
But then again, some things haven’t changed. Yes, we no longer have legal segregation, but we still have institutionalized racism. The surprise release of Beyoncé“Formation” may have caused everyone and their mother to drop everything and run to Red Lobster, but it also highlighted the lack of variety in depictions of Black culture in the mainstream. Case in point: the reaction from right-wingers to Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime show — during which she performed the song clad in a Black Panther-inspired costume. A Tennessee sheriff thought it appropriate to blame a drive-by shooting of a police officer on the singer, while former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani went on TV and accused her of using the show as a “platform to attack police officers.”

Things are far from perfect. And Hollywood reflects that.

In a feature pegged to the upcoming Oscars, Variety points out that it took 23 years for another Black performer to win after McDaniel’s breakthrough (it was Sidney Poitier for 1964’s Lilies of The Field). As a matter of fact, only 17 African Americans have won statues in the Oscars' entire 88-year history. Fourteen of those awards have been for acting categories — and only four black performers — Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, and Halle Berry— have taken home an Oscar for Best Actor or Actress.

We no longer have legal segregation, but we still have institutionalized racism.

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Even those major wins can be problematic. As as we explored in an essay earlier this week, the vast majority of African Americans nominated for Best Actress have played characters “who are either poverty-stricken or close to it. More than a few of them are poor mothers with husbands and boyfriends who are in jail or absent.”

Out of the 94 roles listed on McDaniel’s IMDB page, 74 were maids. (In fact, the NAACP at the time chastised her for perpetuating negative stereotypes.) Plus ça change...

So, what do we take away from all this? Maybe Gordon Bennett says it best:

“Ms. McDaniel, I hope to write you another letter in the next couple of years updating you on our progress. I prefer to look at the glass half full, and believe the lack of minority actor nominations the past two years are outliers. Only time will tell. Thanks to you, we have an appreciation for what’s possible in the face of adversity.”

After her death in 1952, McDaniel’s Oscar was donated to Howard University. Some years later, the plaque was lost, and remains unfound. On the eve of yet another #OscarsSoWhite, let’s remember McDaniel and vow to do better.
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