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The crucial legacy of Hattie McDaniel: The first Black person to win an Oscar

We all respect sincerity in our friends and acquaintances, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it.
– Hattie McDaniel

In June, HBO decided to remove Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic Gone with the Wind because of its problematic depictions of race relations. Although it is debatable whether the film serves as a document of the culture of its time or whether it propagates those very problems, the prevalence of racial prejudices during the time of its release cannot be denied. One of the countless victims of such bigotry was a Black actress who put up an Academy Award-winning performance in the film — Hattie McDaniel.

The youngest daughter of two formerly-enslaved parents, Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1893. Drawn to the performing arts from an early age, McDaniel followed her older brother, Sam, and became a performer in his travelling comedy troupe. She also worked as a songwriter for her brother Otis McDaniel’s carnival company and launched an all-female minstrel show in 1914 called the McDaniel Sisters Company with her sister Etta Goff. However, the troupe became a financially unstable proposition after the death of Otis in 1916. To establish her career as an artist, McDaniel ventured into the then highly popular radio world in the mid-1920s. She sang with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver and recorded multiple songs with Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago between 1926 and 1929. However, her burgeoning radio career came crashing down with the stock market in 1929.

During the Great Depression, the only job McDaniel could find was working as a washroom attendant at Sam Pick’s Club Madrid near Milwaukee. Despite being an attendant, McDaniel convinced the hesitant owner to let her perform on the stage. The owner eventually gave in and she soon became a regular at the club. Soon after, she eventually moved to Los Angeles in order to be with her siblings but the conditions of her artistic career were far from ideal. In order to maintain financial stability, McDaniel often had to work as a cook or a maid. Finally, her brother Sam, who was working on a radio program at the time, helped McDaniel get her another shot at show business. Performing as “Hi-Hat Hattie”, a bossy maid who often “forgets her place”, McDaniel’s show became very popular but the systemic prejudices of that time did not let her success translate to financial remunerations. Her salary was so low that she had to continue working odd jobs to support herself.

Sadly, she could not shake off the maid persona throughout her career and was cast as one in her debut film The Golden West in 1932. Punctuating the point, McDaniel found herself playing a black maid in her second film as well, the highly successful 1933 effort I’m No Angel starring Mae West. She also had several uncredited appearances in films throughout the early 1930s, usually singing in choruses. Her big break, however, came in 1934 when she joined the Screen Actors Guild, attracting attention and larger, credited film roles. That very year, she got her first major role in John Ford’s Judge Priest, starring Will Rogers. McDaniel’s stunning duet with Rogers demonstrated her incredible singing talents and the actress and Rogers became friends during filming. Soon after, she earned a contract from Fox Film Corporation to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. Before McDaniel would star in the film that would define her career, she played the stereotype of the sassy maid in several other films during the mid-to-late ’30s, like the 1935 romantic drama Alice Adams and Murder by Television (1935), with Béla Lugosi. McDaniel was criticised by the Black community for not challenging the status quo but her increasingly prolific career was a defiant statement in itself. She responded to the criticism:

“I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.”

The highlight of McDaniel’s film career came in 1939 when she played the highly sought after role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. According to several reports, McDaniel showed up in authentic maid’s uniform and won the part even though First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. The film proved to be extremely controversial even back then and Black rights activists fighting against the abundant use of racial slurs and the initially positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan which was then altered. They even criticised McDaniel for accepting these racial stereotypes but she insisted, “I loved Mammy. I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.”

Due to the racial segregation in many American states, McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend many of the film’s premiers and faced blatant racism during the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony. It was a sign of the times that is utterly shameful.

Despite the abuse, Hattie McDaniel emerged victorious and became the first Black Academy Award-nominee and winner—but that did not necessarily ensure social acceptance. That year, the awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel which had a strict “no-blacks” policy at the time but decided to let McDaniel in “as a favour”. She was made to sit at “a small table set against a far wall,” where she was joined by her escort and her white agent. Even after the award ceremony, her white co-stars went to a “no-blacks” club to continue the afterparty (Gone with the Wind won eight Academy Awards) and McDaniel was denied entry. In her acceptance speech, the actress said:

“This is one of the happiest moments of my life. I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards. For your kindness, it has made me feel very, very humble and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you how I feel.”

The next Black woman to win an Oscar was Whoopi Goldberg, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ghost 50 years after McDaniel’s achievement. She continued her film career with more nuanced roles in projects such as Joh Huston’s In This Our Life (1942) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. McDaniel remained active on radio and television in her final years and became the first Black actor to star in her own radio show with the comedy series Beulah which turned out to be a hit. Tragically, in 1950, McDaniel suffered a heart ailment and entered Temple Hospital in semi-critical condition. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work and she died of breast cancer at the age of 59. In her will, McDaniel wrote, “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery” but she was denied her last wish because of segregation laws in a damning reflection of the restrictions repeatedly imposed upon her.

After McDaniel’s death in 1952, her Oscar Award (winners of the supporting actor categories were given gold plaques, rather than figurines) went missing. McDaniel had originally donated the plaque to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where it was displayed at the fine arts complex but it soon became apparent that the award was missing and its whereabouts are unknown to this day. The late actress has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her film career and the other one for her contributions to radio. In 1975, she was inducted posthumously into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and her legacy is celebrated by other works including the 2020 Netflix mini-series Hollywood where a fictionalised Hattie McDaniel is played by Queen Latifah.

Despite all the criticism she faced from both sides of the aisle, Hattie McDaniel spent her life trying to prove her talents and skills were far more important than the colour of her skin and she continues to be an inspiration for many to this very day.