More than Mammy: The Life of Hattie McDaniel

The situation for African-American actors in Hollywood is a constant topic of discussion in the industry, and for good reason because it needs improvement. (Remember the #OscarsSoWhite controversy a couple years back?) Black History Month seems like the perfect time to look back at the past for a source of inspiration that black actors working today can utilize going forward. The first African-American Oscar nominee and winner was Hattie McDaniel for 1939’s Gone With the Wind. She won for Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award win is an undeniable example of why she is a fascinating pioneer.

Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas on June 10, 1893. (The year is listed as 1895 elsewhere but Kansas census records list her age as 2 in 1895.) She showed an early aptitude for singing and performing. She began working in radio and had a steady vocalist job by 1929, then followed her brother and sister to Los Angeles and landed a role as an extra in a musical in 1931. Lots of extra work and small roles followed, and then 1934 featured a big break for McDaniel when director John Ford cast her in Judge Priest in which she sang with Will Rogers. She starred with Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel in 1935, and consistent work followed, including Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn, Show Boat with Irene Dunne, and The Mad Miss Manton with Barbara Stanwyck and Peter Fonda.

The most well-known role for McDaniel would come in 1939 as Mammy, the maid to Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone With the Wind. It is ironic that she and the other black actors in the film could not attend the premiere in Atlanta due to their race but she would win acting’s most prestigious award for her role. I want to point out how wonderful it is that the first African-American Oscar winner was also a woman! That’s TWO barriers broken! And it’s no surprise, since McDaniel is delightful as Mammy. She tries to rein in the tempestuous Scarlett and gets teased by Rhett about wearing the red petticoat he gave her as a Christmas gift. In McDaniel’s hands, Mammy is unforgettable.

After her Oscar win, she continued to complete a lot of work on screen before her death from breast cancer in 1952. Her last project was the television leading role in Beulah. Over the years, McDaniel had a lot of roles as a servant, and following her historic Academy Award win, the NAACP criticized her for still taking those roles. However, McDaniel said she would “rather play a maid than be one.” She married four times during her life, being widowed twice before the apex of her career and going through two divorces later in life. Also of note is that she has two stars on the Walk of Fame—one for radio and one for film.

Hattie McDaniel has a place in Hollywood history as the first black Oscar winner and already provides inspiration to today’s African-American actors. Mo’Nique referenced her in her own Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at the Academy Awards when she won for 2009’s Precious. Opportunities for all minority groups in the film industry need to grow, and the precedent set by people like McDaniel will be a part of making that happen. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that just days ago, a studio announced a biopic of her is in development. Hattie McDaniel is still making her presence felt on screen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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