Hattie McDaniel Was The First Black Oscar Winner For ‘Gone With The Wind’
But the hotel wouldn’t allow McDaniel, 44, to sit at the same table as the film’s white actors. And her landmark Best Supporting Actress award didn’t open the doors to better film roles for black actors, including McDaniel herself. Instead of achieving wider success because of her Oscar, she later said, “it was if I had done something wrong.”
An African-American didn’t win an Oscar again until 1964, when the best actor award went to Sidney Poitier, who died that year at age 94. It wasn’t until 2002 that Halle Berry became the only African American to win Best Actress. award.
African Americans have won 20 acting Oscars, but as recently as 2015 there was a call for more diversity under the #OscarsSoWhite banner. This year, four African Americans are nominated for acting awards, up from nine last year, at Sunday’s ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.
McDaniel’s rise from poverty to an Oscar is a story straight out of the movies. She grew up in Colorado as the youngest of 13 children. Both of his parents had been enslaved; his father was a Baptist pastor. She performed in black minstrel shows before moving to Los Angeles, where she eventually built a film career in comedies as a sassy maid.
In 1939, a huge opportunity presented itself. Producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to Martha Mitchell’s bestseller “Gone with the Wind,” about the Old South before and after the Civil War. Burly McDaniel, who worked as a maid between acting jobs, landed the role of the Mammy family’s maid at the Tara Plantation.
Selznick cast British actress Vivien Leigh as Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and matinee heartthrob Clark Gable as Scarlett’s suitor Rhett Butler.
The producer has come under fire from the NAACP and black newspapers over the racism in Mitchell’s book, which idealizes slavery.
Earl Morris of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, predicted that “Gone with the Wind” would be even more racist than the movie “The Birth of a Nation.” Selznick studio officials responded to Morris, telling him that the n-word had been removed from the film’s script and agreeing to exclude references from the book to the Ku Klux Klan.
The film premiered in racially segregated Atlanta on December 15, 1939. About 300,000 people lined the streets to see the film’s stars in a parade. Guests at the Loews Grand Theater included elderly veterans of the Confederate War. An African-American children’s choir, including 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., also performed.
At the end of the nearly four-hour film, Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield spoke. “His voice shook as he called out to the cast members and thanked them,” The New York Times reported. “He asked the audience to applaud the black cast members, none of whom were in attendance.” McDaniel had declined to attend because she could not sit in the theater or stay in the same hotels as the white cast members.
The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, called the film “a weapon of terror against black America”. Most newspapers gave the film rave reviews and many praised McDaniel. “No one who sees the photo will ever be able to forget it,” the Atlanta Constitution reviewer wrote. “In fact, she stole the show quite often.”
In early 1940 McDaniel was nominated for an Oscar. She attended the awards ceremony as Selznick’s special guest because the Ambassador Hotel usually didn’t have allow African Americans. She and her escort, black actor Ferdinand Yober, and her white agent were seated at a small table at the back of the ballroom, behind a long table for the film’s white actors.
The ceremony, like those of today, dragged on into the night. Columnist Harold Heffernan described what happened next: “It was 12:50 a.m. – nearly five hours after the starting bell – before the twelfth annual Oscars dinner managed to spark a spark of excitement. Then – with only a pair of statues for best supporting actor and actress – the falling dinner came to life.
Actress Fay Bainter announced the award for Best Supporting Actress. “Onlookers stifled their yawns and leaned forward expectantly – then gasped. … For Miss Bainter had called Hattie McDaniel” to receive the award, the columnist wrote. “There was silence for a few moments, and then the uproar began…. The crowd gave a standing ovation unprecedented in the history of the Academy.
McDaniel gave a short and moving acceptance speech. “I sincerely hope that I will always bring honor to my race and to the film industry,” she concluded before leaving the stage in tears. “Gone with the Wind” won eight of 20 awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons hailed McDaniel’s award as a breakthrough showing that “race or color should not interfere where merit is due”. Columnist Jimmie Fidler took a different view: “And where does this black artist go from here? Why go back to playing occasional actresses, of course. I don’t think it will be easy for me to laugh at Hattie’s comedy in the future.
Fidler was right. McDaniel continued to be offered roles primarily as maids and cooks. NAACP executive director Walter White singled her out when criticizing black actors playing subordinate and stereotypical roles. McDaniel replied, “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one.”
In 1947, McDaniel landed the title role of the popular national radio program “The Beulah Show”, again portraying a comedic maid. A few years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in 1952 at the age of 57.
The actress faced racism even in death. She had requested to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, but the cemetery was closed to African Americans. In October 1952, 3,000 people attended McDaniel’s funeral in Los Angeles. “After the funeral, 125 limousines formed a procession to Rosedale Cemetery, where she was buried,” The New York Times reported.
When McDaniel died, her estate was valued at around $10,000, or $106,000 now. Most of it was used to pay back taxes. She bequeathed $1 to one of her four ex-husbands. She bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University in Washington, DC, but it was lost.
In recent years, “Gone with the Wind” has faced backlash due to its racism, but adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest-grossing film of all time. McDaniel’s reputation rose as a pioneer of black cinema who had little power to choose her roles.
In 2010, when black actress Mo’Nique accepted the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in “Precious,” she wore white gardenias, just like McDaniel had done 70 years before. “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel,” Mo’Nique said, “for putting up with everything she had to do, so that I didn’t have to.”