Short Profile of Hattie McDaniel

By Marsha Prescod

Hattie McDanielHattie McDaniel, 1895 –1952, was an African American actress who became the first black person ever to win an Oscar for her role as "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind. She was famous for playing mainly housemaid roles, as were the majority of black actresses of the 1930s and 1940s, and was the archetype of the ‘fat black mammy’. This was frustrating and limiting for artists of talent, but was the prevailing situation in the American film industry from its earliest days until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Hattie McDaniel grew up in Denver, Colorado, one of 13 children, and started performing in black minstrel shows (where blacks put burnt cork on their faces, white paint on their mouths and around their eyes, and black wigs and sang and danced and told jokes) at 13. She showed talent in school plays - winning a gold medal for poetry recital, but left school to tour as a singer with a minstrel show, then toured with a musical group. By 1924 she was on the radio in Denver, and was a talented songwriter and recording artist. She got into radio and films in the 1930s – and that is when her typecasting as a maid began. Hattie McDaniel appeared in more than 300 films and her most noted performance in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind won an Academy Award - as Best Supporting Actress. The character she played in that film was actually three dimensional and cantankerous rather than subservient. And as McDaniel pointed out to those in Civil Rights organizations that attacked her roles in the 1940s and 1950s,"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."

Ironically, she scored a great success - and praise in later life from black political groups that had previously attacked her - for a nationally broadcast radio show The Beulah Show. It ran from 1947-1952 and she played a maid… but a believable one. It was the first radio program in which a black person played the starring role.
Hattie McDaniel died in 1952 at the age of 57. It was her wish to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood amongst some of her fellow movie stars but the owner refused to allow her to be interred there because she was Black. Discrimination in life and death was her experience. Yet in her own way she was a pioneer, who paved the way for others.

Hattie McDaniel & Vivien Leigh - US Postal First Day Cover for Gone With The Wind

Additional Links
Hattie McDaniel at the Internet Movie Database - All her movies listed.
The Life and Struggles of Hattie McDaniel - Listen to Jill Watts, author of the book, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood (see books below), talk about Hattie in Radio Programme produced by NPR.
Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel - Detailed review of this TV Programme on Hattie.

Books on Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill WattsHattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts
Book Description (from Publishers): "Hattie McDaniel is perhaps best known for her performance as Mammy, the sassy foil to Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, one of Hollywood's most revered - and controversial - films. McDaniel's Oscar win raised hopes that the entertainment industry was finally ready to create more respectful, multidimensional roles for blacks. But under the aegis of studio heads eager to please Southerners, screenwriters kept churning out roles that denigrated the African-American experience.

Where McDaniel's stature and popularity should have increased after Selznick's masterpiece came out, as was the case for her white counterparts, hers declined, as an increasingly politicised black audience turned against her. 'I'd rather play a maid than be a maid,' is how McDaniel answered her critics. Yet her flippant response belied a woman whose hardscrabble background rendered her emotionally conflicted about the roles she accepted. Here, at last, in a finely tuned biography by Jill Watts, is her story.

Watts, a highly praised researcher and writer, shares little-known aspects of McDaniel's life, from her dealings with Hollywood's power brokers and black political organisations to her successful civil rights battle to integrate a Los Angeles neighborhood, revealing a woman hailed by Ebony as an achiever of "more firsts in Hollywood" than any other black entertainer of her time."

Hattie: Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton JacksonHattie: Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton Jackson
Synopsis: Traces the life and career of the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, looks at her work in radio, and describes her relationships with her fellow actors.

From the Author: how proud I am to be the author of this book. I believe that, of all the books I've written, co-authored, or edited, this is the most satisfying - certainly the most sentimental. Hattie was a wonderful person. She was the first Afro-American to win an academy award. She donated her Oscar to Howard University, and, as far as I can tell, it was lost in the civil rights disruptions of the l960s. I am trying to find out where her Oscar is. Hattie was a natural reformer as seen through her later movies and especially the radio program "Beulah."


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