Sowing Seeds

Cultivators of beauty, brilliance and power

  • 31st January
    2013
  • 31

Day # 23 Hattie McDaniel, First African- American to win an Academy Award

" I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid then earn $7 a day being made"

 Day #23: HATTIE MCDANIEL, PROFESSIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER, COMEDIAN, STAGE ACTRESS, RADIO PERFORMER, AND TELEVISION STAR

Born: June 10, 1895 ~ October 26, 1952 

Trait to admire: Trailblazer 

Bio and Legacy:

image   Hattie McDaniel was born the youngest of thirteen children to slave mother and a father who was a soldier in the Civil War

 image   In 1910 Hattie left school and became a full-time minstrel performer, traveling the western states with her father’s show and several other troupes. In 1925, she was asked to perform on Denver, Colorado’s KOA radio station. In 1926- 1929 she recorded many of songs on Okeh records and Paramount records in Chicago

image  When the stock market crashed in 1929, the only work McDaniel could find was as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner’s reluctance to let her perform, McDaniel was eventually allowed to take the stage and she soon became a regular.In 1931, McDaniel made her way to Los Angeles to join her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook.

image A big break came for McDaniel in 1934, when she was cast in the Fox production of Judge Priest. In this picture McDaniel was given the opportunity to sing a duet with Will Rogers (1879–1935), the well-known American humorist. Her performance was well received by the press and her fellow actors alike.

In 1935 McDaniel played “Mom Beck” in The Little Colonel l with Shirley Temple, Bill ” Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. A number of African American journalists objected to Hattie’s performance in the film. They charged that the character of Mom Beck, a happy black servant in the Old South, implied that black people might have been happier as slaves than they were as free individuals. This movie marked the beginning of McDaniel’s long feud with the more progressive elements of the African American community.

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The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939) had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’HaraEleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she’d earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform, she won the part.Upon hearing of the planned film adaptation, the NAACP fought hard to require the film’s producer and director to delete racial epithets from it (in particular the offensive slur “nigger”) and to alter scenes that might be incendiary and that, in their view, were historically inaccurate

The Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was selected by the studio as the site for the premiere of Gone with the Wind , Friday, December 15, 1939,all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film in the South. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.

McDaniel’s performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind was more than a bit part. It so impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that she was awarded the 1940 Oscar for best supporting actress, the first ever won by an African American. 

While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone With the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there.

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The mid-1940s brought trying times for McDaniel, who experienced a heart-wrenching false pregnancy in 1944 and soon after became the victim of racist-inspired legal problems. The actress found herself in a legal battle over a system in Los Angeles that limited the land and home ownership rights of African Americans. Having purchased a house in West Adams Heights ( also known as “Sugar Hill”) in 1942, McDaniel faced the possibility of being thrown out of her home under a racist restrictive covenant. She organized along with Louise Beavers and Ethel Waters and challenged the racist system in court. Following many years in litigation, the judge threw the case out of court on the grounds that it was time for that African- Americans’ rights under the 14th Amendment to equal protection was respected.

image Rounding out her many firsts, Hattie McDaniel in 2006 became the first African-American Academy Award winner honored with a stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. The image used for the 39-cent Black Heritage Series stamp was a 1941 photo of Hattie McDaniel wearing the sequined gown in which she accepted her Academy Award two years earlier.

McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard and one for motion pictures at 1719 Vine Street. In 1975, she was inducted posthumously into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Ritual of Remembrance:

1. Without Hattie, there would have been no Dorothy Dandridge, or Diahann Carroll, no Eartha Kitt, and certainly no Whoopi, Lynn, Halle, or Angela. 

How many other actress can you name that owe their careers to Hattie McDaniel ?

2. Check out the  interesting and thoughtful take on this subject on “A Different World”  titled “Mammy Dearest”

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