Hattie McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children of a couple of former Afro American slaves. Born in Kansas in 1893, she moved to Colorado in 1900 where she finished her higher education. During the beginning of her career, Miss McDaniel did any sort of job, from singer, waitress, cleaner to old people caregiver. In 1931 at the age of 36 she actively started looking for a place in the Hollywood world.
At the beginning living in LA was not simple. Hattie would work as a maid and cook for most of her time and even when they gave her a radio program all for herself, the “Hit-Hat Hattie”, the wage was still extremely low. The first relevant roles were the ones in “The Golden West” and “I’m not an Angel” in 1932 and 1933, where she was the waitress. She was chosen for many other roles as a waitress during the 30’s but her consecration arrived with the colossal “Gone with the Wind”.
Below: picture of Hattie McDaniel in 1941
Hattie played the role of Mammy, name which was reserved to the Afro-American maids, mother-like figures, often overweight and today used in a pejorative sense. The maid in O’Hara’s home was the stereotype of the woman of colour, violent and devoted only to humble duties. The competition for the role was so fierce that even the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to the producer to suggest her own maid.
The role was given to Hattie McDaniel and her interpretation of the maid, still masterful to this day, was subject of intense critics, especially coming from the groups for the Afro- Americans rights who saw in that character as well as many others performed by the same McDaniel, a continuous negative stereotype of the black Americans.
Below: Miss McDaniel was the leader of a group of animators and hostesses for a dance performance for the soldiers of WW2
Critics on the character and actress aside, the woman did not side with the Afro-Americans rights group if not a few years from her death. Beyond that her interpretation in the role was beautiful and this was worth the nomination and victory of the Academy Awards for Best Actress in a supporting role of the 1939. The premiere of “Gone with the Wind” was foresaw for the 15th of December 1940 at the Loew’s Grand Theater of Atlanta. Hattie could not partake in the event, which had summoned in the city, back then counting only 300 thousands inhabitants, beyond 1 million of people amongst curious ones and journalists, due to the many effective discriminating laws in the US.
She had the chance to attend the Academy Awards night in Hollywood thanks to the film productor David Selznick, who openly spoke up for her to guarantee her right to be present on that night. The event took place on the 29th of February 1940 and Miss McDaniel and her gentleman sat on a table for two, far away from her colleagues who had played on the film with her. When the commission announced her victory, Hattie pronounced the best speech of the evening.
Below: Miss McDaniel in the role of Beulah in the radio program of 1951
Addressing the audience, the woman said:
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you”.
“Gone with the Wind” won 10 Awards, record remained unbeaten for many years. The interpretation of Hattie McDaniel and her role to legitimise the Afro-Americans in Hollywood was fundamental for the modernization of the American film industry. Although the many critics, Hattie got two stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her film roles and one for her radio programs.
Below: Hattie McDaniel’s star at number 6933 of Hollywood Boulevard, for her radio success. At the 1719 instead there is the star with her name on for her films