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What Hattie McDaniel Said About Her Oscar-Winning Career Playing Racial Stereotypes

Hattie McDaniel saw herself as a groundbreaker for black Americans

Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to ever win an Oscar, but she was criticized for the roles she played. (Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
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Hattie McDaniel is remembered as the first black actor to ever win an Oscar.

But McDaniel, born June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas, was far more than that. In total, McDaniels played a maid at least 74 times over her career, perhaps most notably in her Oscar-winning performance as Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s slave and best counselor in Gone With the Wind. Her character's name was the one used for many black female slaves who took on domestic roles.

McDaniels was lauded for her performance as Mammy—a performance that continued off-screen as well. She was credited as “Hattie ‘Mammy’ McDaniel” in the film, did a tour of Gone With the Wind showings in costume. She even auditioned for the part in costume.

But she was also criticized by the NAACP for portraying stereotypes on screen. In 1947, McDaniels published an article in which she personally addressed her critics in Hollywood Reporter.

“I have never apologized for the roles I play,” she wrote:

Several times I have persuaded the directors to omit dialect from modern pictures. They readily agreed to the suggestion. I have been told that I have kept alive the stereotype of the Negro servant in the minds of theatre-goers. I believe my critics think the public more naïve than it actually is. As I pointed out to Fredi Washington, “Arthur Treacher is indelibly stamped as a Hollywood butler, but I am sure no one would go to his home and expect him to meet them at the door with a napkin across his arm.”

Although the n-word is frequently used in the Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, it is never spoken in Gone With the Wind, reported Leonard J. Leff for The Atlantic in 1999. Part of the reason for this is that McDaniel refused to say it, Leff writes, and joined other actors in pushing back. 

McDaniel wrote that the film industry had become a better place for black workers in the course of her career, and that black actors had gained recognition for their work. “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” she frequently said, according to Seth Abramovitch for Hollywood Reporter.

Of winning the Oscar, she wrote:

My own people were especially happy. They felt that in honoring me, Hollywood had honored the entire race. That was the way I wanted it. This was too big a moment for my personal back-slapping. I wanted this occasion to prove an inspiration to Negro youth for many years to come.

Still, her win was racially fraught. The Oscars dinner was held at the Coconut Grove, a segregated venue, and McDaniel was not able to sit with her fellow cast members who were at the awards. She had to sit at “a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort, F.P. Yober and her white agent, William Meiklejohn,” Abramovitch writes. “With the hotel’s strict no-blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed in the building.”

It was consistent with the treatment that McDaniel and her black costars endured throughout the promotion of Gone With the Wind. But from one perspective–and certainly to McDaniel herself–just being in the room meant something. She “saw herself in the old-fashioned sense as a ‘race woman–someone advancing the race,” biographer Jill Watts told Abramovitch. McDaniel certainly put the hours in.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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