Hattie McDaniel: The First Black Oscar Winner

Hattie McDaniel was an African American actress who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She was the first African American to win an Oscar.

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The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences showered “Gone with the Wind” with eight Oscars on February 29, 1940, solidifying the film’s place in Hollywood history. An epic Southern romance set during the hard times of the Civil War, the movie swept the prestigious Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing, and Actress categories. However, the most momentous award that night undoubtedly went to Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of “Mammy,” a housemaid and former slave. McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, was the first African-American actress or actor ever to be honored with an Oscar.

The Journey before the Destination

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1895, McDaniel demonstrated her talents as a singer and actress while growing up in Denver, Colorado. She left school while a teenager to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups and in 1924 became one of the first African American women to sing on U.S. radio. The Great Depression thrust Hattie McDaniel into the role of a ladies’ washroom attendant at a Milwaukee club, forcing her to take on a job far removed from her artistic aspirations. The club, which hired only white performers, eventually made an exception and let her sing, and she performed there for a year before setting her sights on Hollywood.

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In Los Angeles, she won a small role on a local radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts and before long had become the program’s main attraction. She made her film debut as a Southern house servant in The Golden West in 1932. Confined by the racial prejudices of Hollywood in the 1930s, African American actors and actresses found themselves typecast in house servant roles. Hattie McDaniel, facing limited opportunities, played maids or cooks in nearly 40 films during that decade.

Fighting Criticism

Responding to criticism by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that she was perpetuating stereotypes, Hattie McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid on the screen than be one in real life. Furthermore, she often subverted the stereotype by turning her maids into sassy, independent-minded characters who sometimes made white audiences shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Her most famous role was as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming and based on the best-selling Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, the movie remains the highest-grossing movie of all time when inflation is taken into account. Despite her Oscar win, liberal African Americans vehemently condemned McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy, a former slave reminiscing fondly about the Old South, deeming it a harmful perpetuation of negative stereotypes.

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Hattie McDaniel’s film career declined in the late 1940s, and in 1947 she returned to radio as the star of the nationally broadcast The Beulah Show . In the program, she again portrayed an effervescent Southern maid but in a markedly un-stereotypical manner that won praise from the NAACP. In 1951, while filming the first episodes of a television version of the popular show, she had a heart attack. She recovered to do a few more radio programs but in 1952 died of breast cancer at the age of 57.


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