Hattie McDaniel

I don’t think anyone could argue that Hattie McDaniel wasn’t a gifted actress or a pioneer in the entertainment industry. Not only was she the first African-American to win an Oscar, but she was one of the most visible African-Americans in movies of the 1930s and 40s.

It’s partly because of her visibility that her legacy became complicated.

McDaniel as MammyMost all of McDaniel’s roles were as cooks, maids or slaves. Those were the roles available for black women in White Hollywood movies of the era, and McDaniel chose to work over being more selective in the jobs she took.

But beyond the fact of her characters’ stations in life was the more difficult issue of their portrayals. The roles we remember her for today are those in which she was able to shine; roles which weren’t written to portray such hopelessly two-dimensional caricatures that they were only suitable as cheap filler between the meaty portions of the movie. But she worked a lot: 14 pictures in each of the years 1934-36. And much of what she did was clearly beneath her talents, and often beneath the pretensions of the movies to provide serious drama or sophisticated comedy.

McDaniel in NYC, 1941

And that was something of a problem for Hattie McDaniel. The nascent civil rights movement recognized in those lesser, minstrel show characters the reinforcement of dangerous stereotypes that were helping to hold back any kind of social advancement. With McDaniel’s being such a prominent face in so many of these roles, she came under direct fire.

Today, her best roles shine so bright that we can easily dismiss the bad ones we see on occasion. And many of them were in movies that aren’t good enough to turn up these days, anyway.

But at the time and under the weight of so many bad images of black people, it must have been easy to lose sight of how heroically McDaniel worked with what she was given. She was able to take roles with little or no depth as written and, through sheer force of her artistic will, breathe life into their shallow characters until we believed them to be full-bodied individuals.

Hattie McDaniel is credited (anecdotally) with responsibility for the Academy’s institution of the awards for Best Supporting Actors. It was her small turn in 1935’s Alice Adams that got all the attention and helped to produce the most memorable scene in the movie.

In that scene, Katharine Hepburn’s family has hired a maid for the evening in order to dress up a dinner and impress the girl’s uptown beau. The dinner slides downhill quickly and Hepburn tries to compensate with manic chatter to fill the dead spaces in the conversation. As her embarrassment becomes more difficult to watch, our own discomfort gets harder to bear.

But as McDaniel serves the dinner, her comedy — quiet and broad — is pitched perfectly to offset both Hepburn’s mania and our discomfort. Not only is she hilariously funny. But the balance she provides creates a palpable mix of bitter and sweet emotions. The effect is moving. We’re able to sympathize with Hepburn because McDaniel keeps her from driving us crazy.

In a blog posting on the Turner Classic Movies site — the posting that started me thinking about Hattie McDaniel in the first place — there’s a mention of a concern in the Production Code Office that her character in the Mad Miss Manton (1938) wasn’t properly respectful to the white folks in the movie.

As Barbara Stanwyck’s maid, McDaniel delivers an endless stream of quick-witted come-backs, putting her employer and her gaggle of debutantes in their place. At one point, she even throws a pitcher of water in Henry Fonda’s face. It’s not brilliant comedy, but she’s really funny.

Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind (1939), a first for any African-American. Shouldn’t that have made her a figurehead of the civil rights movement rather than its pariah?

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

McDaniel with Fay Bainter on Oscar Night

Her accomplishment was remarkable. Not just that she won the award. But the role of Mammy is presented entirely from the point of view of the white people in the movie. We never see her in any moments that might be comparable to the private time of a free person. We know almost nothing of her life before the story begins.

And yet, Mammy feels like a fully developed character. We don’t know the facts of her background; but we sense the details of her internal life. We understand the trajectory of that life from before the beginning of the movie to its end. And Hattie McDaniel creates all of that; it’s not in the script.

But Gone With The Wind is, in many ways, only a more polished presentation of the same white supremacist politics we saw in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) a quarter of a century earlier. We don’t see any sex-crazed mulattos threatening the sanctity of white womanhood here. But it does present the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic assembly of concerned white gentlemen who are forced by circumstance to clean up the bad part of town.

2006 Commemorative US Postage Stamp

And at the center of this rose-colored portrait of a noble era is Mammy, a slave so devoted to her white owners that she sticks by them even after emancipation. McDaniel won the Oscar for her remarkable performance, but she portrayed a character who was the reverse image of the progress black men and women were trying to make in Depression-era America.

None of this complexity could have been lost on Hattie McDaniel. She was the child of two former slaves. She faced a good deal of documented professional discrimination; one can only imagine what kind of personal challenges she encountered as a young entertainer in the 1910s and 20s.

It’s almost always pointless to try to understand the choices a person makes outside the context of her time and place. McDaniel not only managed to carve out a career in an industry that was openly hostile to African-Americans, but she excelled at it, capturing the highest honor the American movie industry offers.

She’s often quoted as saying “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” And she played a lot of them, too.

For what it’s worth: this white, middle-aged fag counts her among his heroes. Her industry gave her almost nothing to work with and she managed to create moments of subtle insight and great beauty from the little she got. In a world short on both insight and beauty, that’s quite a legacy.

And just for the record, she didn’t always play a maid. Here she is bringing down the house in 1943’s Thank Your Lucky Stars.

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