I grew up watching Hattie McDaniel play mammies, cooks and maids. I grew up watching her movies without knowing the context of her life at all, or why she couldn’t get any other roles. I adored her as an actress. She stole scenes from Katherine Hepburn, which is not an easy thing to do, and she had a voice that spoke of her past as a Blues singer.
Hattie McDaniel is a celebrated and vilified figure in African-American film history. On the one hand, she was the first Black American to be nominated for and to win an Academy Award. On the other hand, she received that honor for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s happy slave mammy in Gone With the Wind. On the one hand, Hattie was the first African-American woman on the radio and she pioneered the first sitcom to star an African-American actress. On the other hand, “The Beulah Show”, both on the radio and on television, perpetuated racist caricatures of black Americans lifted from Civil War era minstrel shows.
Before moving to L.A. to begin her film career, Hattie McDaniel performed as a comedian in vaudeville acts, as a blues singer, and as a leading actress in the national tour of the musical “Show Boat”. Hattie appeared in over 300 films, but was credited by name for only around 80 of them. She was almost exclusively cast as mammies, slaves, maids, and cooks. Between roles, Hattie worked as a maid, cook, bathroom attendant and other jobs similar to the ones she played in movies.
Both contemporary and modern critics have objected to the roles Hattie played in film, on stage, on television and on the radio. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) under the leadership of Walter White boycotted her movies and protested the “Mammyism” she portrayed in her roles. Hattie received much scorn for her quote on the subject, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
A powerful group of black and Jewish moneyed elite in America, the NAACP of the 1930s and 1940s were often seen by less affluent African-Americans as being out of touch with the reality of working poor blacks. Meanwhile, the NAACP sought to promote an image of black “normalcy” that mirrored white middle class values and mores and a generally more European phenotype. The lighter-skinned Lena Horne appeared on two issues of the NAACP magazine “Crisis” in the 1940s.
Lena Horne once said she knew Walter White saw her as “an interesting weapon” in his public perception battle, but she cared little so long as he and the NAACP could protect her ability to sing for a living, and thus provide for her children as a divorced mother. With the group’s backing, she was able to negotiate terms in her film studio contract that guaranteed she would never play a subservient role such as a nanny, cook, or maid.
And yet, it is questionable whether Lena Horne could have had a film career at all, if not for early black film pioneers like Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson (another target of criticism from the early NAACP.) Hattie’s prolific and high profile film career saw her starring with the biggest names of the day, from Clark Gable to Shirley Temple to Katherine Hepburn, and even in her much less glamorous and well written roles, Hattie often stole scenes from her well-known costars.
Mammy roles like Hattie played existed long before her film career began; they were just previously performed by white men and women in blackface make up. Hattie felt she could not change the parts offered to her by protest and indignation alone, but she strove to imbue her characters with a sense of humanity, and her line readings often added a tone of righteous anger that had not been originally intended by the screenwriter.
Because of her reputation for cooperativeness and a strong work ethic, Hattie was able to request some changes to scripts; by the late 1930s when she won the part of Mammy, she had enough clout she was able to have the word “nigger” excised from the script of Gone With the Wind, something it is arguable no other black actor in America could have done at the time. Her salary for Gone With the Wind was $1000 a week, making her the highest paid African-American actress of her day.
Tune in later this week for Part 2 on Hattie’s personal life, historic Oscar win, and contributions to African-American equal housing rights.
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