Reflecting on the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, first Black actor to win an Oscar

In its 94-year-long historical past, the Academy of Movement Image Arts and Sciences has bestowed an Oscar, one the business’s most coveted performing awards, to simply 10 Black girls. This yr, actor Angela Bassett may turn into the eleventh title on that quick listing, persevering with a legacy that started with trailblazing performer and Hollywood legend Hattie McDaniel in 1940.

Bassett is nominated for Greatest Supporting Actress, the identical class through which McDaniel received for her function within the 1939 adaptation of Gone with the Wind. McDaniel’s story has turn into synonymous with an extended, sophisticated battle in Hollywood for equitable consideration and correct respect for the careers of Black performers. It is a pursuit that represents a actuality but to be seen, typically glossed over by the victorious, hope-inspiring moments, like McDaniel’s Oscar win. 


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However McDaniel’s legacy is way greater than only a line within the annals of Oscar historical past, with echoes of her inventive ethos discovered within the creation of non-Academy award exhibits, the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite(Opens in a brand new tab) social media marketing campaign, and the clamor for recognition of ensemble casts and numerous, human tales within the arts. The truth is, the one-dimensional depiction of McDaniel as merely a historic Oscar winner is a symptom of the issue itself, defined Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew and the keeper of her property. 

“The reward that Hattie gave me in researching her and speaking to folks about her is that she was extra than simply the Oscar,” he stated.

Documenting this historical past has been a multi-generational purpose of the McDaniel household, a baton handed to Goff from his personal father. Past the award, the 59-year-old says, McDaniel positioned eternal fingerprints on each a part of Hollywood she touched. 

One thing that is not preserved almost in addition to her Academy recognition is the importance of the whole McDaniel household. If we had been to take a extra broad take a look at the McDaniel story, says Goff, it might be a Hollywood title uttered in the identical breath because the Barrymores’. 

McDaniel was born right into a wealth of creativity. She started as a childhood Vaudeville performer who took to the stage alongside a number of of her 13 older siblings, together with Goff’s great-grandmother Etta. The household wasn’t restricted to performing, both — McDaniel wrote and carried out music, she did radio exhibits, and, to the shock of Goff, she even performed the drums. In her personal phrases, she “performed the whole lot however the harp.”

In some ways, the household legacy can be one among unstated activism, began by the participation of McDaniel’s father, who was born into slavery, within the Union’s Civil Battle effort, and continued within the defiant early performances of her and her siblings — on the flip of the century, McDaniel was even performing in “whiteface,”(Opens in a brand new tab) a radical option to subvert the recognition of white-led minstrel exhibits. McDaniel’s presence as a Hollywood mentor, a charitable benefactor, and a neighborhood builder lasted lengthy after her historic Academy win, which Goff defined did little to beat systemic racism on the time.

A black and white photo of McDaniel signing an autograph for a white fan.

Credit score: CBS / Getty Photographs

Submit-Oscars, McDaniel nonetheless suffered injustices by the hands of the business and history-keepers. At 47 years outdated, her efficiency as Gone With the Wind‘s home servant (now often referred to in critiques of the broader “Mammy” caricature(Opens in a brand new tab)) acquired criticism from organizations just like the NAACP for selling Black stereotypes. Nationwide, many members of the Black neighborhood recoiled in opposition to her performing selections(Opens in a brand new tab) in debates on the definition of “racial progress.”

It was a restricted artistic actuality that almost all Black actors needed to face on the time, Goff stated, but additionally a job that she had private attachment to, as she had educated in home service alongside her personal mom. Different historians have quoted McDaniel as explaining her tackle the function was truly a nod to the likes of Sojourner Fact(Opens in a brand new tab)

“Most Black performers did play a subservient sort of character. However Hattie did not come from that type of house. In case you take a look at her performances, she was confrontational. She would see what was on the written web page and say, ‘That is what I am working with. Let me put my persona in there,'” Goff stated. “It was both that or caving in to what actors did usually, and he or she did not really feel like that was going to advance progress for Black performers.”

A chorus shared by trendy performers and activists alike, awards did not change McDaniel’s lived actuality of being a Black lady in america. She was retaliated in opposition to by her white neighbors after buying her own residence, and was later denied her want to be buried within the well-known Hollywood Cemetery(Opens in a brand new tab). And whereas her Oscars plaque was posthumously donated to Howard College, as she had requested, it’s now reportedly lacking(Opens in a brand new tab). Goff stated the Academy instructed him just a few years in the past that it might get replaced, however that also hasn’t materialized.

A black and white photo of Hattie McDaniel posing in front of a photo exhibit.

Credit score: Getty Photographs

Regardless of dwelling in a rustic that “has at all times checked out us as subhuman,” as Goff beforehand wrote within the San Diego Tribune(Opens in a brand new tab), it is McDaniel’s poise whereas persevering that needs to be heralded, he instructed

“That is the factor that impresses me about Hattie. It isn’t the Oscar. It isn’t the truth that she succeeded in Hollywood regardless of the obstacles. The factor that impresses me about Hattie is that whereas all of this was happening… she’s being compassionate and gracious. Think about all of those doorways are being slammed in your face and you continue to have this humanity. That is braveness.” 

That is not to say that McDaniel’s win should not nonetheless be talked about in an age the place Black communities nonetheless should battle for illustration, recognition, and primary rights. This historical past serves extra as a reminder to the movie business at massive, because the Academy Awards are nonetheless predominantly white and male(Opens in a brand new tab), regardless of some enhancements. “She made a delicate influence, step-by-step, in order that when the following individual got here round within the subsequent technology, it might even be simpler for them,” stated Goff.

McDaniel, who was prohibited from attending the world premiere of her personal movie, broke boundaries simply by attending the twelfth Academy Awards, held on the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Resort(Opens in a brand new tab). She entered the ceremony to the applause of reformists and activists, and in opposition of business elites, earlier than shattering precedent as she accepted the primary Oscar ever awarded to a Black actor.

“I sincerely hope I shall at all times be a credit score to my race and to the movement image business,” McDaniel stated in her acceptance speech. “My coronary heart is just too full to let you know simply how I really feel.”

However it might take 50 years for one more Black lady to be honored with an Academy Award, this time recognizing Whoopi Goldberg as Greatest Supporting Actress for her function within the 1990 movie Ghost. On the 2002 Oscars ceremony, Halle Berry made her personal historical past as the primary Black lady to win the coveted Greatest Actress award, for her function in 2001’s Monster’s Ball

Whoopi Goldberg holds up an Academy Award while standing in front of a white backdrop.

Goldberg holds up an Academy Award for her ‘Ghost’ efficiency in 1990.
Credit score: John Barr / Liaison / Getty Photographs

Halle Berry holds up an Academy Award while standing in front of a life-sized version of the gold statue.

Berry exhibits off her history-making award for her 2001 efficiency in ‘Monster’s Ball.’
Credit score: Getty Photographs

In whole, solely 10 Black girls have received an Oscar, a listing quick sufficient that it might probably simply be recited: Jennifer Hudson (Greatest Supporting Actress, Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Greatest Supporting Actress, Valuable), Octavia Spencer (Greatest Supporting Actress, The Assist), Lupita Nyong’o (Greatest Supporting Actress, 12 Years a Slave), Viola Davis (Greatest Supporting Actress, Fences), Regina King (Greatest Supporting Actress, If Beale Avenue May Discuss), and Ariana DeBose (Greatest Supporting Actress, West Aspect Story), along with McDaniel, Goldberg, and Berry. Berry is the one winner within the Greatest Actress class. 

“[Hattie] makes me consider all girls,” stated Goff. “Do not all girls do one million issues, however solely get credit score for 2 or three? You are crushing it on a regular basis, and you are not getting your fair proportion of acknowledgement. That is what Hattie went by means of. That is what my mother went by means of.”

The truth that seven of the ten Oscars awarded to Black girls have been throughout the final 20 years might give trigger for optimism, although there are up to date examples of the continued burden on Black performers to make troublesome artistic choices like these McDaniels confronted a long time in the past. In 2011, Spencer mentioned a worry of being typecast(Opens in a brand new tab) as a maid for her award-winning function as Minny in The Assist. Bassett, now nominated for her function as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Without end, beforehand shared that she turned down the function that received Halle Berry her Greatest Actress Oscar, reportedly calling the half “such a stereotype about Black girls and sexuality.”(Opens in a brand new tab)

As the primary Oscar-nominated performer for a job throughout the huge Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for a movie seen by many as emblematic of Black satisfaction and excellence(Opens in a brand new tab), Bassett’s nod may signify hope for a flip towards overdue recognition. However, as tv and academy audiences await the 2023 Greatest Supporting Actress outcomes, it is completely attainable that Bassett — who has solely been nominated twice in her four-decade-long profession— would possibly stay on an extended listing of the under-acknowledged.

“It is like an enormous machine that has all this energy,” Goff stated. “You are attempting to hop on and hitch a experience, however on the similar time you are attempting to alter the gears, change the route of the place it is going. That is a extremely onerous factor to do.” Regardless of the expanded entry now afforded to numerous creatives within the movie business, he stated, if the identical individuals are operating the machine, they will not wish to be steered away.

In the end, although, the machine has simply as a lot to lose in withholding acclaim because the artists themselves do. “I believe you reap what you sow,” stated Goff. “If a section of the inhabitants would not really feel appreciated, and the business goes by means of what it is going by means of proper now, will it ever be capable to construct itself again up?

“What you don’t need is a physique of artists — who’ve lots to provide — to not care anymore. As a result of then you are going to lose lots of superb tales.”

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