Sunday, February 24, 2013

Leading the Way: Hattie McDaniel

Born in 1895 to parents who were former slaves, Hattie McDaniel was a creative, precocious child known for writing songs, singing and a charming, easy-going disposition. Her graciousness and comedic talent led her into show business where she would work with the best of the best: Mae West, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh and Katherine Hepburn, among others. McDaniel was much beloved on any movie set. Her coworkers began to rely on her warmth and generosity. Other actors fought to work with her. Word of her tremendous talent began to spread.

Nevertheless, she had to audition for the role with which most people associate her, that of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. She arrived at her audition dressed for the role, and won the part over many other actresses despite her past experiences in mostly comedic parts. Her fine performance as “Mammy” led to a nomination for an Academy Award—a first for an African American performer. More so historic was her win that year for Best Supporting Actress.

As "Mammy": Turner Entertainment
Even with an Academy Award win to her credit, Miss McDaniel still had many battles to fight. She was no stranger to discrimination. Even for the Atlanta premier of Gone with the Wind—the film for which she received her Oscar—event planners discouraged her (or any of the other black perfomers’) attendance. If she did go, she would have had to stay at a segregated hotel. She wouldn’t even have been allowed in the theater. In fact, her photo and the photos of the other African American actors were forbidden from being printed in the program. Clark Gable was furious—refusing to attend! However, McDaniel encouraged him to go.

Hattie McDaniel didn’t stand for the oppression around her. In 1945 she organized other African American residents of their posh Hollywood neighborhood to fight an injunction that dictated that homeowners could only be white. They won their battle and set a precedent that would be the groundwork for other such fights.

A member of the African American sorority Sigma Gamma Rho, McDaniel the Chairman of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, which offered entertainment for the soldiers stationed at military bases. Her good friend Bette Davis supported McDaniel in her efforts, making Davis the only white actor to perform for the African American troops. Known to feed, to clothe, to lend money or support to anyone in need regardless of knowing them, McDaniel also devoted her efforts to helping people who had been displaced by floods and natural disasters.

Hattie McDaniel died in 1952 after a long, celebrated career. Her last wish was to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery. The owner, however, refused to have a person of color buried in his cemetery. In 1999, the cemetery (newly renamed Hollywood Forever) wanted to correct this injustice as best they could. A large monument was erected in McDaniel’s honor. A fitting tribute to a remarkable person—if not fifty years too late.

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