June 10 - Happy Birthday, Hattie McDaniel

Posted on June 10, 2018

Actress, singer-songwriter, and comedian.

The first black woman to sing on the radio in the United States.

Actress on TV.

Appearances in more than 300 movies.

First black entertainer to win an Academy Award.

Being the daughter of two people who'd been enslaved...

Being a black woman born in 1895...

Being a black woman in Hollywood in the mid-1900s...

OF COURSE Hattie McDaniel faced a ton of discrimination, segregation, and disrespect. Because she is most famous for her enslaved maid role as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind, some black people and organizations also criticized her. For example, at one point the NAACP said she furthered negative stereotypes of black people. Indeed, Hollywood DID typecast her, since 74 out of 94 roles listed on McDaniel's IMDb were maids. (McDaniel said that she would rather play a maid than BE a maid. She and members of her family had certainly had to do plenty of work as maids, so she knew what she was talking about!)

As to "negative stereotypes" in her slave and maid roles, especially as Mammy, McDaniel could have acted subservient, like a proper enslaved servant - respectful, eyes downcast, minding every word of command from her masters. Instead, she spoke her mind, at times criticized her mistress (Scarlett O'Hara), and at times gave wise counsel.

Of course, that fed into a particular stereotype, too: the sassy maid. But McDaniel did the best she could with the opportunities afforded her, and she DID push the boundaries for black entertainers on more than one occasion. 

McDaniel was born into extreme poverty. She was born in Kansas, but her family soon moved to Denver, Colorado. She was one of 13 kids - and several of them became actors or entertainers.

When she achieved her biggest success, in 1940 - winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress - she was still treated poorly. She was not seated at the Gone With the Wind table like the other GWTW nominees, but instead she was seated at a small table in the very back. And that was still a "gracious" concession, because the Academy Awards show was being held in The Ambassador Hotel - which had a strict no-black-people-allowed policy! (That policy was overturned in 1959 - almost two decades later! - when California finally passed a law that outlawed racial discrimination.) So the producer of GWTW actually had to call in a special favor just to get the hotel people to allow McDaniel into the building!!!

Apparently, the Hollywood folks watching McDaniel accept her Oscar were choked up with emotion over the "first" - and maybe were emotional because she gave such a wonderful speech, including these words: "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."

But, emotion and awards aside, McDaniels was still treated poorly after her big win. Her final wish was to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, and that wish was denied -

- because, of course, there was a no-black-people-allowed policy!

One of McDaniel's grandnephews made sure that Hattie was eventually a part of the Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery); in 1999, a marble memorial to the actress was placed there. (Her family decided to keep her remains in the original burial site.)

No comments:

Post a Comment