Hattie McDaniel at Oscars

Hattie McDaniel and Why I’ve Never Watched ‘Gone with the Wind’

I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind (1939). You see, I’m African American and from South Carolina. Glorified images and nods to the Antebellum South are all too present even in 2014. “Plantation” and “Cotton” are easily found in the top most used names for establishments old and new throughout the state. Flags and attitudes aren’t much further behind. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t everywhere or everyone, but 75 years later is still too soon and besides, I hear it’s really really long. I’ll get around to watching it one day.

For those who love the film, I can’t comment one way or the other since I haven’t seen it. However, even in writing this post, when I went to the homepage of imdb.com, before typing a single letter, there was a Valentine’s Day query asking visitors if they prefer epics such as Gone with the Wind or quirky indies such as (500) Days of Summer (2009). I’ll take the latter, which I have seen and think is pretty great!

Hattie McDainel
Hattie McDainel

Still I’m honored to honor, Hattie McDaniel in this post. In 1939, ten years after the launch of the Oscars, McDaniel became the first African American to win in any category. It would be another nine years before an African American would again be nominated (1948 Ethel Waters for Pinky, Supporting Actress) and 24 years before another African American would win (1963 Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Best Actor).

McDaniel was the first African American invited to the Academy Awards as a guest and not a servant. She had to sit in the back of the room at a table for only her and her husband. She also wasn’t permitted to attend the Atlanta film premiere. And in death, she was denied burial in Hollywood Memorial Park (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery) because of her race.

McDaniel received intense criticism from the NAACP and others accusing her of reinforcing negative stereotypes. Most of her roles fall into the “mammy character” category, signifying the limitations placed on African Americans by Hollywood studios at that time. It’s worth taking a look at how far or not so far African Americans have come in Hollywood since, but that requires a post for another day.

McDaniel’s speech is rumored to have been written by the studio. If you were to simply read the words on paper, it’s not hard to image this rumor to be true. Still there’s something more when you hear or see it for yourself.

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