By Amy D. Jackson
Hattie McDaniel is a mystery to most. Her name doesn’t ring any bells and her face is a void of shadow. In Hollywood terms, her fifteen minutes have long since expired from thought. However, a few tiny shards of her silver stardust remain to entice the truth and keep her memory alive.
McDaniel was what historians called blacks who were born to former slaves: a New Negro. McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895. She was the thirteenth child of Henry and Susan McDaniel. Her father Henry had fought in the civil war thirty years earlier. Two of Hattie’s siblings Etta and Sam McDaniel appeared in motion pictures. However, she would be the true star of the McDaniel clan. Hollywood hadn’t called yet. In the prequel of Hattie’s Hollywood life she was a singer/songwriter for her father’s minstrel show. With the death of her brother Otis in 1916 the troupe began to lose money.
McDaniel would gain subtle fame during the years of 1920-25 for she would tour with Professor George Morrison’s Melon Hounds, an all black ensemble cast. For nine glorious years she would do what she loved: sing. The crash of 29’ shattered McDaniel’s dreams too. She was no longer able to find work to further her artistic endeavors. So, McDaniel became a washroom attendant and waitress for Club Madrid in Milwaukee.
As chance would have it, luck soon came galloping Hattie’s way. She would go on to star in a string of films as an outspoken maid or mammy like The Golden West and I’m no Angel. To pay the bills, McDaniel continued to work either as a maid or cook when acting roles for African Americans were scarce. Nonetheless, playing the parts of demeaning servitude (latter charged by blacks and the NAACP) would change Hattie’s life and engrave a small piece into Hollywood history that would not be challenged until the arrival of Sidney Poitier. After joining the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), McDaniel procured larger roles in the industry starring alongside names like: Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore.
Snagging the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind would forever change McDaniel’s life. She wasn’t sure if she would get the part of Mammy, but when her friend Clark Gable spoke highly of her to David O. Selznick the part was already hers. McDaniel turned out a beautiful audition garbed in maid’s wear. The pivotal chapter of her life had begun to write itself. Despite all the African-American actors’ fruitful labor they were unable to attend the première in Atlanta. David O. Selznick tried to get the steel laws of segregation to bend to allow McDaniel to attend but was advised by MGM to leave it for she wouldn’t be able to sit with her white cast mates anyway. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the première if McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend but was persuaded otherwise by McDaniel herself. However, that episode would be considered a drop in the bucket months later at the Oscars. McDaniel would be nominated and win for best supporting actress for her portrayal as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel sat on the opposite side of the room from her white fellow thespians due to segregation that night too. It was a joyous moment when McDaniel won and accepted her award. The speech was and still is very stirring. Hattie’s heart went into her award as she that night was a symbol and the pride of her people.
McDaniel would go on to make other films although none would ever be as memorable as Gone with the Wind. She would marry four times and be widowed once. Her marriages would not yield a single child. Still in the bloom of her life and career, McDaniel passed away at age 57 from breast cancer. She is interred at Rosedale Cemetery her second choice of burial. She was not allowed to be buried at the Hollywood Cemetery because of segregation laws. Mo’nique is set to star in a McDaniel biographical film.
To Gone with the Wind fans McDaniel will remain the comic timing, trash talking, loving Mammy to Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nevertheless, to some the roots will ponder deeper than that and she will remain the first woman of color to receive an Academy Award for a motion picture. Click here to see Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech.