Editor’s Note: With so much talk about a lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars, we decided to republish this story from last year’s LA Wave. Coverage of this year’s Academy Awards begins at 4 p.m. PST on Sunday, Feb. 22.
It was, in many ways, a magical night for most African Americans.
There was Halle Berry, dazzling as ever, embracing the dashing heartthrob, Denzel Washington. Sidney Poitier was honored for his on-screen dignity and legacy, and even former honoree Whoopi Goldberg was on hand for comic relief.
The night would have been fairytale complete, but for one glaring omission – there was no mention of Hattie McDaniel.
Like her peers, McDaniel, too, had snared an Academy Award in one of the “Big Four” acting categories – and she had done it nearly 25 years before any of them graced the scene.
Despite her revolutionary achievement, however, McDaniel’s name is rarely mentioned these days as a pioneer among black screen performers. Much like the film for which she won an Oscar, it seems that McDaniel’s fame is forever gone with the wind.
It was on Feb. 29, 1940 that Hattie McDaniel – the daughter of a former slave – became the first African American to win a coveted Academy Award. Her Oscar award for portraying a hip, outspoken servant in the Civil War epic “Gone With The Wind” helped lay a foundation for black performers like Poitier, Berry and Washington – and scores of others to follow.
Berry seemed to sense the magnitude of the moment when, in her 2002 Best Actress acceptance speech, she said: “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll… and for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Technically, the door was opened 75 years ago.
And this Sunday, when Hollywood honors its best at the 87th annual Academy Awards, you can bet that the name of Hattie McDaniel again won’t be mentioned. Why? Because McDaniel’s award for Best Supporting Actress came at a time when most Hollywood films romanticized American life and demeaned blacks as lazy, shiftless, ignorant and inferior.
Although McDaniel frequently injected strength and dignity into her roles, it seems that many people – embarrassed by Hollywood’s racist past – would just as soon forget about McDaniel and her kind.
But it’s time to show a sister some love.
Born into a musically talented family in the 1890s, McDaniel left school as a teenager to perform in a minstrel show. When entertainment jobs became scarce during the Great Depression, she took a job as a bathroom attendant in a Milwaukee nightclub – a job she kept until the nightclub’s owner discovered her singing ability and hired the talented performer.
As a singer, dancer, songwriter and lyricist, McDaniel performed at the nightclub for about a year until she moved to Los Angeles to expand her horizons – and her opportunity.
When her scant resources ran out, she struggled as a cook and a maid before getting a job on a local radio show called “The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour.” Soon, Hi-Hat Hattie, as she became known, was the show’s main attraction.
Now a budding actress, McDaniel landed several film roles as a maid or a cook – practically the only Hollywood roles that existed for black actresses. The subservient, stereotypical images depicted in such roles, however, angered some black liberals who wanted to see more sophisticated roles for black performers.
Stung by the criticism but never one to hold her tongue, McDaniel quipped in reply: “I would rather play a maid in the movies than be a maid in real life.”
It was the kind of candor for which she would become popular – both on screen and off.
McDaniel ultimately would appear in more than 300 films, some 80 of which she received on-screen credit. During a time when radio was king, McDaniel became one of the first African Americans to star in a radio show when she landed the title role of Beulah in the wildly popular “Beulah Show.”
A compassionate social activist, McDaniel organized entertainment for black troops during World War II and, after the war, promoted fundraising events to help educate underprivileged black youth.
Post-war Hollywood, however, was not kind to McDaniel. Acting jobs for the talented performer started fading in the 1940s as the film industry moved away from the kinds of stereotypical roles in which McDaniel had been typecast.
Turning to the new medium of the day – television – McDaniel began preparing for a network TV version of “The Beulah Show,” but suffered a heart attack while taping the initial episodes. She died of breast cancer in 1952 and became one of the first – some say the first – African-American to be buried in Los Angeles’ Rosedale Cemetery.
At her elaborate “Homegoing” service, her sister, Ruby, read a few lines from McDaniel’s favorite poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar:
“When all is done, say not my day is o’er; and that through night, I seek a dimmer shore. Say rather that my morn has just begun. I greet the dawn – and not a setting sun – when all is done.”