Before Halle, Whoppi and Viola, there was Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel: First black Oscar winner made her maid roles work

As Hollywood celebrates its own tonight with the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, the first black actor to win an award, Hattie McDaniel, should also be celebrated. Her no-nonsense persona came through in many characters leading up to her award-winning performance as the maid Mammy in David O. Selznick’s 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind.”

Critics called her character the only sensible and likable person in the entire epic film. That was a common theme of the day, that maids and mammies, cooks and man Fridays were smarter, wiser and kinder than the white folks who were supposed to be their betters.

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Actress Hattie McDaniel in a promotional photo from 1939, the same year that “Gone With the Wind” premiered, for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But the accolades didn’t bring about star treatment. An article in The Hollywood Reporter recalled the evening:

McDaniel arrived for the 12th Academy Awards, held at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair. She was escorted, not to the “Gone With the Wind” table — where Selznick sat with Olivia de Havilland, who was the other supporting actress nominee, and his two Oscar-nominated leads, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable — but to 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. With the hotel’s strict no-blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building.

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Donald Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films,” noted that at least the first half of “Gone With the Wind” is about the Confederacy, and throughout the film the Mammy character is trapped in servitude. Yet, he said, McDaniel gives Mammy a “degree of agency.”

“She is the one character who was aware of Scarlett and how ruthless and manipulative she is,” said Bogle, whose new book “Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers,” comes out in May.McDaniel has that confidence and that big voice. She projects a certain kind of power. She still has an assertiveness where she will speak her mind to Scarlett and even with Rhett Butler.”

“The problem for her in ‘Gone With the Wind’ is the context,” Bogle said. “You never see her in her own setting. Where does she go when she leaves Scarlett? They never define her and never define her relationship with other black characters.”

“The responses can be conflicting,” Bogle said. “This is something with black actors in general. We can feel very conflicted when we watch and see some of the things that they do, but we don’t really reject the actor and actress.”

According to Encyclopaedia Brittannica, McDaniels was born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kan., to former slaves. She was raised in Denver, Colo., where she exhibited musical and dramatic talent at an early age. She left school in 1910 to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups, and later she became one of the first black women to be broadcast over American radio.

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With the onset of the Great Depression, however, little work was to be found for minstrel or vaudeville players, and to support herself McDaniel took a job as a bathroom attendant at Sam Pick’s club in Milwaukee. Although the club as a rule hired only white performers, some of its patrons became aware of McDaniel’s vocal talents and encouraged the owner to make an exception.

McDaniel performed at the club for more than a year until she left for Los Angeles, where her brother found her a small role on a local radio show, “The Optimistic Do-Nuts.” Known as Hi-Hat Hattie, she soon became the show’s main attraction.

Two years after McDaniel’s film debut in 1932, she landed her first major part in John Ford’s 1934 flick “Judge Priest,” in which she had an opportunity to sing a duet with humorist Will Rogers.

Her role as a happy Southern servant in 1935’s “The Little Colonel” made her a controversial figure in the liberal black community, which sought to end Hollywood’s stereotyping. When criticized for taking such roles, McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid in the movies than be one in real life.

“Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!” she is quoted as saying.

During the 1930s she played a maid or a cook in nearly 40 films, including the 1935 drama “Alice Adams,” in which her comic characterization of a grumbling, far-from-submissive servant made the dinner party scene one of the best remembered from the film.

At the end of World War II, during which McDaniel organized entertainment for black troops, the NAACP and other liberal black groups lobbied Hollywood for an end to the stereotyped roles in which McDaniel had become typecast, and consequently her Hollywood opportunities declined.

Radio, however, was slower to respond to the NAACP’s protests. As a result, in 1947, McDaniel became the first African-American to star in a weekly radio program aimed at a general audience when she agreed to play a maid on “The Beulah Show.”

In 1951, while filming the first six segments of a television version of the popular “Beulah” show, McDaniel had a heart attack. She recovered sufficiently to tape a number of radio shows in 1952 but died soon thereafter of breast cancer.

Besides her historic win and reaction from civil rights groups, McDaniel’s family said her career was defined by contradictions, from performing in “whiteface” early on to accounts that her refusal to utter the N-word meant it never made it onscreen in “Gone With the Wind.”

In the 90-year history of the Academy Awards, only 17 performances by black actors or actress won Oscars. This year Regina King has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “If Beale Street Could Talk and Mahershala Ali’s “Green Book” performance earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Here is the complete list of past winners:

402719 228: Best Actor and Actress winners Halle Berry and Denzel Washington pose with their Oscars backstage during the 74th Annual Academy Awards March 24, 2002 at The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, CA. Washington won for his role in "Training Day" and Berry, the first African-American woman to ever win an Oscar for a leading role, won for "Monster's Ball". (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Best Actor 

Sidney Poitier – Lilies of the Field, 1963

Denzel Washington -  Training Day, 2001 

Jamie Foxx - Ray, 2004 

Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland, 2006 

Best Actress 

Halle Berry - Monster’s Ball, 2001

Best Supporting Actor 

Louis Gossett Jr. - An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982

Denzel Washington - Glory, 1989

Cuba Gooding Jr. - Jerry Maguire, 1996

Morgan Freeman - Million Dollar Baby, 2004

Mahershala Ali - Moonlight, 2016

Best Supporting Actress

Hattie McDaniel - Gone With the Wind, 1939 

Whoppi Goldberg - Ghost, 1990

Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls, 2006

Mo’Nique - Precious, 2009

Octavia Spencer - The Help, 2011

Lupita Nyong’o -  12 Years a Slave, 2013

Viola Davis - Fences, 2016

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to AJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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AJC staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

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