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 long-suffering slave maid (played by McDaniel) whom I both revered and feared? She was a slave, and in many ways, a tool used by Margaret Mitchell to gloss over the ugly realities of plantation life. Still, 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.”
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.
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.”
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.