Finally in the Spotlight: Hattie McDaniel, Pioneering Black Actress

By Britt, Bruce | The Crisis, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

Finally in the Spotlight: Hattie McDaniel, Pioneering Black Actress


Britt, Bruce, The Crisis


BOOKS Finally in the Spotlight: Hattie McDaniel, Pioneering Black Actress Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood By Jill Watts (Amistad, $27.95)

At the 2002 Academy Awards, having just become the first African American in history to nab the Best Actress Oscar, Halle Berry delivered a moving acceptance speech that put her victory in perspective. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Home, Diahann Carroll," Berry declared, evoking the names of her acting forebears. "It's for every nameless, facele8|jj woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Though the speech was well-intentioned, it was also ironic. It made no mention of Hattie McDaniel, the pioneering African American actress who paved the way for Berry and other people of color in Hollywood. The first Black recipient of an Oscar (as Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind), McDaniel inspired generations of Black actors back in the days when dignified African American roles in mainstream films were virtually non-existent.

In her compelling and superbly researched biography, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, author Jill Watts chronicles how McDaniel brought substance to the most unflattering roles. Nowhere was this more apparent than in McDaniel's Oscar-winning turn as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.

"It was hardly (the) slow, elderly, and 'lumbering' character," Watts writes. "McDaniel played the role with an astute quickness and vigor...loyal and devoted, but she was also bossy, intelligent, loud and opinionated."

Watt's biography suggests that McDaniel fashioned Mammy in her own strong and eccentric image. The book's cover features a photo of McDaniel at the precise moment her fortunes changed. Snapped at the 1939 Oscars, the photo shows the grinning actress in a corsage so densely appointed with flowers that it almost looks like she is posing before a garden.

But as Watts reveals, McDaniel's life was no bed of roses. Unlucky in love - McDaniel was married four times - she poured her passion into her work and the Oscar failed to shift her career into overdrive. In fact, it made McDaniel a target for Black progressives. Having become an American icon on the strength of her convincingly portrayed servant roles, McDaniel spent much of her post-Oscar career defending herself against attacks from African American leaders.

Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1893, McDaniel was the youngest of seven surviving children born to Henry and Susan McDaniel. From a young age, she learned about persistence from her father, a former soldier who was wounded during the Civil War. …

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