OTD in History… February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African American woman to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
(Originally published on the History News Network Tuesday, March 4, 2008)
On this day in history….February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African American woman to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, which goes on to win 8 Oscars that night.
On February 29, 1940, Gone with the Wind the sweeping cinematic tale of the American Civil War and of the old South made its own history. The film, now considered a classic, was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name written by Margaret Mitchell. Gone With The Wind won in ten Academy Award categories, and took home eight Oscar statuettes including the Best Supporting Actress category, which was awarded to Hattie McDaniel for her role as “Mammy.” McDaniel’s February 29, 1940 win was historic because she was the first African American to be nominated and win the Academy Award, which was even more exceptional considering the racist overtones in both the book and movie and Hollywood’s attitude toward African American actors in the industry. In 1940, years before the civil rights movement altered the nation’s perceptions of African Americans, McDaniel’s win was groundbreaking in white Hollywood. However, it would not be enough to shatter the prevalent racial stereotypes.
From the time of its publication, Gone with the Wind angered African Americans and civil rights organizations, predominantly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When the news was announced that David O. Selznick was developing the novel into a film, many wanted Selznick to abandon the film, because the negative stereotypes were in a similar vein as D.W Griffith’s racist 1914 film, Birth of a Nation. They argued that it would lead to more discrimination against blacks and reinforce misguided stereotypes about Reconstruction. Daniel J. Leab notes in his book From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, “As with the Griffith film, many moviegoers accepted David O. Selznick’s 1939 movie as historical and social truth even though Gone with the Wind merely repeated many of the earlier movie’s caricatures in a more up-to-date style — and in Technicolor.” (Leab, 112)
Blacks in both movies were caricatures but in different ways. Griffith portrayed African Americans as vicious, whereas Mitchell portrayed blacks as faithful, ignorant and servile, as “one character in the film called [them,] ‘the simple-minded darkies.’” (Leab, 112) Mitchell, pro-Confederate, left the impression that black slaves were happy working on plantations. Civil rights leaders feared that the popularity of “Gone with the Wind [was] a barometer of American race relations in the 1930s and 1940s.” (Leff, 1999)
After the movie premiered there was little objection from racial groups such as the NAACP and only tempered responses from the National Negro Congress because so much had been done during the pre-production stage to make sure the film was less offensive. Crisis, a leading black newspaper, claimed that the film “eliminated practically all the offensive scenes and dialogue so that there is little material directly affecting Negroes as a race, to which objection can be entered.” (Pyron, 145) In the pre-production stages Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, led the crusade to tone done the most derogatory caricatures from the novel. White was blond and blue-eyed, but identified himself as African American because of his ancestry. He worked tirelessly to convince Selznick that the changes were necessary. It was because of his early success in changing the script that the NAACP kept its objections to the film to a minimum. Leab explains, “Given the popularity of the novel and the ineffectiveness of the few protests staged against the film, there was little else that the NAACP and other groups could have accomplished.” (Leab, 112)
Another major point of contention was whether the offensive and racist word “nigger,” which was used in the book, should be used in the script. Selznick wanted to maintain historical accuracy, but at the same time, he claimed he did not want to offend African Americans. African-American leaders and White were not alone in pushing for the word to be omitted. So was the official movie censor, the Hays office. Selznick however, wanted the word to be used when African-American characters were speaking with one another. The black press threatened to boycott the film — and every film Selznick made in the future — if he used the words “nigger” and “darkie.” Selznick believed he was being fair with the script, because he already omitted some of the most offensive parts of the novel, including positive references to the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote Sidney Howard, the scriptwriter in 1937, “I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film. In our picture, I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger, which I do not think should be difficult.” (Leff, 1999)
It is uncertain who in the end convinced Selznick not to use the word “nigger” although “darkies” and “inferiors” remained in the screenplay, as well as the stereotypical portrayals. Leonard J. Leff writing in his article, “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics: Making Gone with the Wind Meant Dealing with Fierce Criticism from Black Newspapers and Public Officials” attributes the decision to Victor Shapiro, the studio public-relations director. While Earl Morris, the Pittsburgh Courier columnist believed he was responsible, and Walter White has been heralded as the one who finally convinced Selznick to remove the racist language.
Hattie McDaniel might have refused to use the word and took matters into her own hands. McDaniel’s role remains uncertain. It is possible McDaniel’s pressure finally forced Selznick to abandon the use of the word. Jill Watts writes in her biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, “Just a few days before Selznick suddenly abandoned his fight; McDaniel had filmed scenes that would have required her to use the term. It was clearly absent in the final cut. Long after the filming of Gone with the Wind was complete, it was widely reported that McDaniel had refused to deliver lines containing the offensive epithet.” (Watts, 160) According to her biographer, Jill Watts, McDaniel’s resistance to the use of the word was unlike her; her career was based on his willingness to play “to white racist expectations.” (Watts, 160) McDaniel herself “never specifically claimed responsibility for changes in Gone with the Wind.” (Watts, 160)
The public’s inability to distinguish between fiction and reality was especially obvious in peoples’ views of Hattie McDaniel. Americans found it almost impossible to separate the actress from the character of Mammy, which she played. People thought she was a “Mammy who worked in Hollywood.” (Sturtevant, 69) Leab describes McDaniel’s character, as “The most faithful of faithful souls is Scarlett O’Hara’s ever scolding but ever loyal mammy, who stays with her mistress through good times and bad, through the Civil War and after.” (Leab, 112) In fact, the studios promoted these images, and after McDaniel won the Oscar, she became known as Hattie “Mammy” McDaniel for public appearances. Victoria Sturtevant in her article “But Things is Changin’ Nowadays An’ Mammy’s Gettin’ Bored: Hattie McDaniel and the Culture of Dissemblance,” notes, “In some sense, Hollywood is always participating in this fiction — the star system, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, fed off of audiences’ willing beliefs that performers were more or less authentically reflected in the roles they played.” (Sturtevant, 70)
Hattie McDaniel was the daughter of plantation slaves and knew very well the role of the servant; the role was one she repeatedly played on the screen and in real life when she was younger and struggling. In the early years of her career, she was a radio vocalist and blues singer. She appeared in forty films from the early 1930s until her death in 1952, and in all of them, she essentially played the same role, a domestic worker. McDaniel felt she had few other options. As she often said, “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.” Hollywood simply didn’t give blacks the opportunity of playing roles that broke with stereotypes. As Sturtevant writes, “This rigid typing was the cause of a downturn which met Hattie McDaniel’s career following her Oscar victory. McDaniel had averaged ten films a year between 1934 and 1938 — her roles were so small (and so similar) that she could finish shooting each quickly and move on.” (Sturtevant, 73)
The role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind was different than the usual black roles McDaniel had played. And she took ownership of the part, says Watts. (Watts, 166) Although Louise Beavers, who had co-starred in Imitation of Life, was considered the leading candidate for the role, Hattie McDaniel, auditioning in a full Mammy uniform, impressed Selznick. In an interview with the New York Amsterdam News, the country’s most important black newspaper, McDaniel stated, “When I read the book Gone with the Wind, I was fascinated by the role of “Mammy” and like everyone in the position to give it professional consideration, I naturally felt I could create in it something distinctive and unique.” (Watts, 166) She put her all in the role; the constant script changes allowed for improvising, and McDaniel went as far as directing herself in scenes. She put her experience as a blues singer, actress, and black woman in white America into the role to create a Mammy uniquely her own. As Watts writes: “If her character in Gone with the Wind did succeed in breaking new cinematic ground, as some have argued, then it was due to Hattie McDaniel’s reinterpretation of the role.” (Watts, 166)
McDaniel’s effort paid off. When Selznick reviewed the film in the fall of 1939, he concluded that McDaniel’s performance as Mammy really stood out far more than he had realized earlier and it “astonished him.” (Watts, 167) Although she was a supporting character, her portrayal of Mammy left a powerful impression. She “emerged as one of the film’s strongest characters.” (Watts, 167) Selznick raved about her performance. He sent her a congratulatory telegram and signed McDaniel to a long-term contract. In a telegram to Howard Dietz, his publicity man in New York, Selznick praised McDaniel, writing that she delivered “a performance that, if merit alone rules, would entitle her practically to co-starring.” (Watts, 167) To the vice president of production, Daniel O’Shea, “Selznick predicted that the actress’s contributions would leave a ‘sensational impression’ on film audiences.” (Watts, 167)
The black and white press agreed with Selznick and hailed McDaniel’s performance in their reviews of Gone with the Wind. The word was out that McDaniel’s performance was a highlight, and the sneak preview for the press confirmed it; after one scene, featuring Mammy the audience actually applauded. The Chicago Defender wrote, “Hollywood almost cheered her every entrance.” The California Eagle cheered: “Hattie is the happiest person around these parts, for she knows she turned in her very finest performance to date.” McDaniel hoped her performance would allow African Americans to come to terms with the film that they had been so skeptical about. The black press was receptive to her role and the Amsterdam News praised “McDaniel’s ‘coveted’ role of Mammy, to which she brought the ‘dignity and earnestness’ that made her ‘more than a servant.’ She became ‘confidante, counselor, and manager of the O’Hara household.’” (Pyron, 144)
Although Gone With the Wind today is remembered as racist, in the South it was considered problematic. The city of Atlanta refused to allow the African American actors to attend the premiere along with the whites. An image of McDaniel was excluded from the souvenir program because it gave her equality with her white co-stars. McDaniel, despite her talent, found that her career options were limited. Columnist and radio personality Jimmie Fidler lamented, “something about all the hoopla bothered him. ‘Where does this Negro artist go from here?’ he asked. ‘Why back to playing incidental comedy maids, of course.’ With the film factory’s rock-solid racial barriers, Hattie McDaniel’s future, he believed, was bleak. Hollywood had no intention of providing her with any real opportunities to use her talents. ‘I don’t think it will be easy for me to laugh at Hattie’s comedy in the future,’ he stated. ‘For I’ll never be able to overlook the tragic fact that a very great artist is being wasted.’” (Watts, 174)
After the film’s release, the black press agreed that Hattie McDaniel’s performance was outstanding, but objected to the film’s depiction of African Americans, slavery, and emancipation. Melvin B. Tolson’s review in The Washington Tribune was representative. He commended McDaniel for playing “the nuances of emotion, from tragedy to comedy, with the sincerity and artistry of a great actor.” At the same time, he panned the film as “more dangerous than The Birth of a Nation.” This was because “The Birth of a Nation was such a barefaced lie that a moron could see through it… [but] Gone with the Wind is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as truth by millions of whites and blacks alike.” (Watts, 174, 175) Although there was an outcry from the black press, the NAACP declined to denounce the movie. Watts observes, while the NAACP’s leaders “agreed the production was historically flawed and unflattering to African Americans, they contended that it was not egregious enough to campaign against it.” (Watts, 175) Privately, Walter White forced Selznick into donating to the NAACP to show he supported the advancement of African Americans. Selznick’s donation: $100. (Janken, 267)
Many in the black press wondered why Hattie McDaniel wanted to be involved with the film and the role and objected to her participation. To that question, she responded: “This [was an] opportunity to glorify Negro womanhood. I am proud that I am a Negro woman because members of that class have given so much.” (Watts, 177)
In February 1940, the black and white press were pushing for McDaniel’s nomination for an Academy Award. McDaniel came to Selznick with clippings from the black press both about the black reaction to the film and support for the nomination. In December, Edwin Shallert from the Los Angeles Times praised McDaniel’s performance calling it a “remarkable achievement” that was “worthy of the Academy supporting awards.” (Watts, 177) Some black journalists asked readers to send letters to Selznick to “place McDaniel in the running for an Oscar.” (Watts, 177) A letter from Sigma Gamma Rho, an African American sorority, lobbied on her behalf, arguing that “without Miss McDaniel, there would be no Gone with the Wind.” After McDaniel won the award, they again wrote Selznick: “We trust that discrimination and prejudice will be wiped away in the selection of the winner of this award.” (Leff, 1999)
The outpouring of support led Selznick to give McDaniel a place on the Best Supporting Actress ballot, although he also put Olivia de Havilland into consideration for her role as Melanie. Also in the running for the award was Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights, Edna Mae Oliver for Drums Along the Mohawk, and Maria Ouspenskaya for Love Affair. Gone with the Wind garnered an unprecedented thirteen Academy Award nominations and was the favorite to win big. Balloting began on February 15, 1940, with the winners announced at a ceremony on February 29. Despite the protests staged at the movie’s Chicago premiere and the hostility of the black press to the movie, almost everybody seemed to want McDaniel to win the award. In the afternoon before the award ceremony, McDaniel attended the Academy Awards banquet. She dined with the white cast and Selznick at the Coconut Grove where the ceremony was later held.
For the Oscar ceremony, McDaniel wore an ermine stole over a blue gown and trimmed her hair and dress with gardenias. She entered the Ambassador Hotel with the same fanfare as the other actors; fans both black and white cheered her. The night was magical for both Gone with the Wind and Hattie McDaniel. As Leff recounts, “The evening would be as radiant as the Oz of The Wizard of Oz, so magical that nothing could spoil it, not even a small band of demonstrators outside the hotel, protesting against the racism of Gone with the Wind.” (Leff, 1999) Fay Bainter, who won the Best Supporting Actress Award the previous year, was onstage to present this year’s winner.
In trying to analyze how McDaniel was feeling in the minutes leading up to the announcement, Jill Watts writes, “Hattie McDaniel must have felt a surge of nerves and excitement. This daughter of ex-slaves, who had struggled with poverty and racial oppression, had finally broken into the highest ranks in Hollywood, ascending further than any African American had in the world of white show business.” (Watts, 179) As Fay Bainter made the announcement, there was silence in the room. “It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque, that I present the Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.” (Watts, 179)
The room broke out in applause and as Hattie McDaniel stepped up to the podium to accept the historic award, “Clark Gable shook her hand and Vivien Leigh kissed her.” (Leff, 1999) In McDaniel’s remarks, which she prepared with the assistance of Ruby Berkley Goodwin, she said, “Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting for one of the awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” (Jackson, 52)
The reaction of both the white and black press demonstrated what McDaniel’s historic Oscar win signified in terms of advancement for African Americans. The white media were patronizing; as Sturtevant recounts, “They gushed self-consciously over the award and its recipient.” (Sturtevant, 75) Louella Parsons in her nationally syndicated column described the moment when McDaniel won the award: “En masse, the entire audience, stars in every place, stood and cheered their beloved Hattie McDaniel. Tears came to Mammy’s eyes as she made her way to the stage to accept the award.” (Sturtevant, 75) The quote is representative of the condescension. Especially telling were the words “their beloved Hattie McDaniel,” as if the white audience had an invested interest in her win, a comment that would not have been used if Olivia de Havilland had won the award instead. Referring to her McDaniel as “Mammy” was an example of the way in which the white audience blurred the line between the character and the actress. The Atlanta Constitution’s coverage was over the top, “enthusiastic to the point of defensiveness in its coverage of her award,” because the city prevented McDaniel from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere. (Sturtevant, 75)
The black press seemed less impressed with McDaniel’s win, relegating the story to the back pages. Only The Atlanta Daily World devoted its front page to McDaniel’s Oscar win. Some reported the win not as an accomplishment in itself, but rather as a signal of a possible change in the fortunes of black actors in white Hollywood. Clarence Muse wrote in The Chicago Defender, “Some day Hattie may thrill your souls with a modern mother role, glorifying Race youth.” (Sturtevant, 76) Muse was insinuating that McDaniel had not accomplished this. In fact, Hollywood would not allow her to have roles that portrayed African Americans as equals with whites. Sturtevant explains, “McDaniel was important insofar as she was opening doors for more varied roles for black performers, not insofar as she had given the best supporting performance of 1939 in a glossy Hollywood feature about white people.” (Sturtevant, 76)
The only roles McDaniel would be offered in the years after her Oscar win were the usual stereotypical fare for a black person. As Sturtevant states, “despite the Oscar, she was still regarded as a type, not as an actress.” (Sturtevant, 72) The Academy Award should have opened doors for McDaniel; instead, she remained stuck in old stereotyped roles. As Sturtevant writes: “The differing responses of black and white audiences to McDaniel’s Oscar shed significant light on the relationships during this volatile period among Hollywood moguls, black performers, and the American public, black and white.” (Sturtevant, 70)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Carlton Jackson, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel (Madison Books, 1993).
Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP, (UNC Press, 2006).
Daniel J. Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, (Secker & Warburg, 1975).
Leonard J. Leff, “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics: Making Gone with the Wind Meant Dealing with Fierce Criticism from Black Newspapers and Public Officials,” Atlantic Monthly, (December 1999).
Darden Asbury Pyron, Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture, (University Presses of Florida, 1983).
Victoria Sturtevant, “But Things is Changin’ Nowadays An’ Mammy’s Gettin’ Bored: Hattie McDaniel and the Culture of Dissemblance,” Velvet Light Trap (1999), Vol. 44, pp. 68–79.
Jill Watts, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, (HarperCollins, 2005).
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.