Celebrating Hattie McDaniel, first African-American to win Oscar

Celebrating Hattie McDaniel, first African-American to win Oscar
By Andrea Lewis

February 24, 2004

On Feb. 29, 1940 -- 64 years to the day before this year's Academy Awards presentation -- "Gone With the Wind" swept the Oscars, winning eight major awards, including Best Picture. But none of the awards was more historic than the one presented in the Best Supporting Actress category.

On that night, Hattie McDaniel took a long walk from a segregated table in the back of the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles to accept the award for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," becoming the first African-American to win an Oscar.

McDaniel was the first black (who wasn't a servant) even to be admitted to the ceremony. It was a strange bit of irony considering that McDaniel was limited to playing maids like Mammy through most of her film career.

McDaniel was near tears as she delivered a gracious acceptance speech that night. The award was a welcome show of professional acceptance and respect for the talented woman who had endured typecasting through much of her life.

Outside the event, protesters demonstrated against "Gone With the Wind" and its racial stereotypes as they had at the film's premieres in Chicago, New York and other cities. Signs with slogans such as "No, No Mammy!" made it clear that McDaniel's role was a major point of contention.

Groups such as the NAACP were troubled by Hollywood's unwillingness to allow blacks to be seen in roles other than servants. No characters seemed to personify those limitations more than the maids Hattie McDaniel played.

She was known for saying, "Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

At the time, few moviegoers realized that McDaniel was hamstrung by producer David O. Selznick's restrictive contract that kept her from playing any role other than a maid or servant, or that offscreen McDaniel had been involved in various protests of her own, including leading an anti-segregation fight in her Los Angeles neighborhood.
By the time "Gone With the Wind" was being filmed, she was even using her considerable influence to push for changes, such as eliminating the "n" word from the script.

McDaniel was a multi-talented woman. She got early training in vaudeville, worked as a blues singer, toured with "Showboat" and became one of the first black women to sing on the radio.

Once she arrived in Hollywood she began to appear in films opposite major stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn.

McDaniel's long walk to the podium in 1940 was near the beginning of the trail for blacks in Hollywood. These days, with such notable black stars as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Cuba Gooding Jr., Will Smith and others, many would argue that times have changed for blacks in Tinsel Town.

But stereotypes and limitations persist. There are more roles available for black actors, especially former Oscar winners and nominees, but few big studio films -- other than those made by African-American directors -- are willing to go beyond casting a black actor in a supporting role and tackle the realities of the African-American experience. Those that do, like "Glory" and "Mississippi Burning," are almost always told through the eyes of white characters.

One of this year's major Oscar-nominated films, "Cold Mountain," has been particularly criticized for its lack of attention paid to blacks during the Civil War.

"Both 'Gone With the Wind' and 'Cold Mountain' romanticize the South," director Spike Lee told the Associated Press in a recent interview, noting that blacks are virtually invisible in "Cold Mountain." He added, "We're going backward if 'Gone With the Wind' is more progressive than 'Cold Mountain.'"

Filmgoers should rightly celebrate the achievements of black pioneers such as Hattie McDaniel, and the positive changes that have come since. But the long walk for African-Americans seeking true acceptance in Hollywood is far from over.