Friday 10 June 2016

Born this day: Hattie McDaniel

"It was as if I had done something wrong."
Hattie McDaniel

"I have never apologized for the role I play."
Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel was born on 10 June 1895 as the daughter of parents who had both been born into slavery and were freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (via).

For her role as Scarlett O'Hara's "Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind" (1939), she received the Academy Award in the best supporting actress category - the first black US-American to win the Oscar. The Academy Awards were held at the Cocoanut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (via), the hot spot for celebrities, the place where six Academy Award ceremonies were held (via), a place with a strict no-black policy. After Fay Bainter's introduction ...
"I'm really especially happy that I am chosen to present this particular plaque. To me it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America; an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color. 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." Fay Bainter
... and Hattie McDaniel's accepting speech, McDaniel was escorted to a small table set against a far wall, distant from the "Gone With the Wind" table where Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and David O. Selznick were sitting. Producer Selznick "had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building" which was officially integrated only in 1959 (via). The party-loving Academy Award winner could not go to any of the parties afterwards, either and celebrated elsewhere with other black castmates (via).

The movie premiered in Atlanta, without Hattie. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere and decided to attend it only when McDaniel asked him to do so. During production, Gable said he would walk off the film if the "White" and "Colored" bathroom signs were not removed immediately (via).
"The Loews' Grand where the premiere took place did not have segregated seating. Black Atlantans waited four months until April to see it in a "colored" theater. Selznick recognized that his film could invite strong attendance among African Americans, and even thought that if black cast members came to Atlanta, they could help promote the film in black neighborhoods. Kay Brown, like the MGM distribution and advertising executives who planned the premiere, relied heavily on certain Atlantans for advice on many issues, including this one. The "Hollywoodians" knew they were way out of their depth on the "delicate" issue of race relations in the South. Most simply, they followed the advice the Atlantans gave them, which was not to include Hattie McDaniel in the festivities or the souvenir book. Regarding the latter, the rationale was that McDaniel's photo in the program might give some malcontent a basis for criticism of the film and the premiere, something they wanted to avoid. Besides, as guests of the city, the Hollywood folks thought they should follow their hosts' suggestions. Kay Brown put it well: "…while it was unfortunate to exclude Mammy, it was the wisest policy." They made an unsurprising choice in 1939." Matthew Bernstein

"I hasten to assure you that as a member of a race that is suffering very keenly from persecution these days, I am most sensitive to the feelings of minority peoples." David O. Selznick (Jewish-American producer)
Selznick, nevertheless, had to agree to redraw the posters removing all black faces as otherwise white leaders in the Deep South would not have allowed the movie to be shown in cinemas (via).

Segregation knew no boundaries; her final wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery was denied because of her skin tone. Jules Roth, a convicted felon and millionaire who had bought a 51% stake in the cemetery, did not allow her to be buried at Hollywood Memorial. The cemetery, too, was desegregated in 1959 - seven years after Hattie McDaniel had passed away - and on the 47th anniversary of her death, the cemetery's owner dedicated a cenotaph in her honour (via).
"I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gard­enia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery." Hattie McDaniel
During her career, McDaniel had been given the stereotypical domestic "Mammy" role at least 74 times (e.g. Disney's "Song of the South"). The representation of the archetype was the reason why she was harshly criticised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that accused her of perpetuating negative stereotypes. There were, however, no other roles given to black women. Anything else would have been considered as threatening. "Gone With the Wind" insulted the black audience, picket lines were organised in various cities (via).
“I’d rather make $700/week playing a maid than $7 being one!”
Hattie McDaniel

Given these circumstances, the value of Hollywood's highest honour may be questioned. Her Oscar was, in fact, seen as valueless, went missing in the 1970s and is still missing today. But things can also be seen differently: According to W. Burlett Carter, the award would be worth half a million dollars now. And it is of much more than monetary value:
"It's a sad story but this Oscar represents a triumph for blacks — because we can look back and see that things really are so much better now than they were at that time."
W. Burlett Carter

More: The Atlantic Online
photographs via and via and via and via