HATTIE McDANIEL: Pioneer Character

“We all respect sincerity in our friends and acquaintances, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it.”             
                                                 … Hattie McDaniel 

Hattie McDaniel was a character actor whose presence on the silver screen is one we shall never forget. In addition to her memorable performances on screen, her impact beyond the celluloid made this actress into a cinematic legend and a true pioneer in the African-American community.

Born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, she was one of 13 children and the daughter of former slaves. Her parents introduced her to music and entertainment early on- her father was a Baptist preacher yet also sang and played the banjo in minstrel shows and her mother was a gospel singer. The family moved to Denver in 1901. By high school, Hattie’s talents were already starting to shine in school and church; thus began her early career as a singer and a dancer. She often joined her father’s minstrel act and toured with other vaudevillian troupes. In 1925, she became one of the first African-American women of radio- and the very first black female voice to sing on the radio.

In the early 30’s when she moved to L.A., she was able to garner small roles on the radio through her brother, Sam and sister Etta (already working in radio/film)- which turned into bit roles as extras in films. In order to get by, she took on odd jobs in domestic work while pursuing radio and film work. But in 1934, she landed her first big break on-screen role as a maid in John Ford’s JUDGE PRIEST.

From there, her roles came more frequent with a more assertive personality with each subsequent role… but always as the maid or “mammy” character. She appeared in close to a hundred roles as an actress and usually in that similar character as the maid/mammy who is loyal to her employer yet comfortable enough to express what’s on her mind, even in defiance with stern mannerisms. Her outfits would often reflect the racial stereotype as the “mammy.” McDaniel’s performances stood out, despite as racially stereotypical and stagnant as they may be. It was her quality of her craft that made these roles memorable. These stereotypical characters led to her crowning achievement and most recognizable role, as “Mammy” in Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). Her acceptance speech in winning the Academy award for Best Supporting Actress; the very first Oscar ever won by an African-American:

“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.”

The road to earn this coveted award from the Academy, along with the rest of the gains in her life, was not an easy one traveled. Her accomplishments often came at a great price and were surrounded by controversy. As shocking as it may be to comprehend in modern society, none of the black actors were allowed to attend the premiere screening of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) which took place in segregated Atlanta, GA. In fact, For the premiere night’s cotillion ball, Martin Luther King Sr. was invited to attend as a influential minister but was being encouraged to boycott the premiere’s events by fellow civil rights leaders. MLK Sr. attended anyway, along with his soon-to-be high-profile son.

During World War II, McDaniel supported American war efforts by entertaining the troops and promoting war bonds all while continuing to play these same roles. But soon the frequency of offers slowed down dramatically. Post WWII, the progress of civil rights movement had little tolerance for black actors perpetuating demeaning racial stereotypes. McDaniel, as a major symbol of that role countless times over was openly scorned by the NAACP. She disagreed. She defended herself stating that she found success; and in her own way made changes for future generations of African-Americans in Hollywood. She was also known for offering black actors to stay at her home if they couldn’t find lodging while residing in LA to help build their careers. And as she famously said, “I’d rather play a maid than be one…Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”

As Hollywood became more interested in a new generation of African American actors like Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier that better reflected a transition into an era of civil rights, movie roles were no longer being offered to Hattie McDaniel. She chose to return to radio instead. “The Belulah Show” was a popular starring role for her. She played a maid but with NAACP approval this time, from 1947 to 1951. The success of this show resulted in a tv version but McDaniel only played this role once on the small screen because she suffered a heart attack. Although she did recover, she soon discovered she had terminal breast cancer. She died on October 26, 1952.

While another ‘first’ for McDaniel was to be the first African-American to be buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, it was actually her wish to be buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A more than reasonable request by such an Oscar-winning pioneer in Hollywood; but she was denied due to racism AGAIN. Nearly 50 years later, a monument was finally placed in her honor at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Carved in granite, the perfect response to her Oscar acceptance speech and loving tribute are forever immortalized… “you are a credit to your craft, to your race and to your family.”  Posthumously, she was also awarded 2 stars on Hollywood’s Walk-Of-Fame: one for radio and one for film.

When I think of Hattie McDaniel, my earliest memory of being introduced to her was via the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons with her recurrent “mammy” role illustrated in animated form; often knee-down view only as she would holler “Thomas!” in her loud, scolding way and frequently with broom in hand. Yes, that was Hattie McDaniel too. As I grew older, I was surprised how this same person could play this similar character in SO many different films. As I watch classic films as an adult, the ‘black-face’ skits are INCREDIBLY uncomfortable and alarming to watch. [How ON EARTH did anyone think this was not insulting?!] But as stereotypically negative as the ‘mammy’ and other servile roles were for any and all African Americans to portray, it’s somehow different when watching Hattie. Despite the demeaning roles and enormous challenges forced upon her, she had such integrity in her skilled performances that always shone through. She was memorable.

History proves that changing intolerance takes hard-work, time and persistence. Sadly, it’s often not a quick fix. Hattie McDaniel proved that she was a trailblazer for her time. A woman of many ‘firsts.’ It takes a true character to be such a pioneer!      

-This post was written as part of the FABULOUS and FUN ‘WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon’ as hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN, Paula of PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB and lil’ ole me… Kellee of OUTSPOKEN & FRECKLED. Be sure to catch up on all the blogger entries for their talented write-ups!
                                                  What A Character! Blogathon 2013


16 thoughts on “HATTIE McDANIEL: Pioneer Character

  1. She did have demeaning roles, but she made them her own. She was bigger than the role and her talent was unmistakable. In that day and age, she was right: Better to make $700 to play a maid than earn $7 being one.

    I gasped when I read African Americans were not allowed to attend the Oscar ceremony where she was awarded the Oscar. Incredible!

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute. It's always a treat to see the talented Hattie McDaniel in a movie.


  2. I hear ya- it's tough sometimes for folks to understand the hard work and patience it takes to make REAL change in relation to the challenges of a particular era and culture. Sadly, it is often baby steps to make lasting change.


  3. Thanks, Chris! And yes- I read the same story. I read that Clark Gable at first was planning to not attend the premiere in protest of Hattie and the other black actors not being allowed to attend. She convinced him that it would be better for him to attend anyway to keep the peace. She also made an excuse to the director as to the real reason why she was not attending so he felt comfortable in moving forward with the festivities. McDaniel and Gable apparently got along very well behind the scenes, like ole friends that enjoyed teasing each other. As a funny prank, he once replaced her 'tea' with real alcohol in a scene just to see if she could keep in character. Thanks for joining our blogathon Chris! I'm still trying to catch up on reading all the awesome entries.


  4. 100% agree! And yes- can you imagine not being able to attend your own movie premiere then winning a friggin' Oscar for it?! I hope the racists who barred the actors from attending their own premiere were choking on their mint julips with that news! lol. Thanks again for contributing to our blogathon and commenting here too, gal!


  5. What I always admired about Hattie McDaniel is that while she played roles that were often demeaning stereotypes, she was able to give each of them personalities all their own. Mammy in Gone with the Wind is an example of that. Yes, in many ways she is a stereotype, but in many other ways she unlike any other character in any other film. I always thought it was a shame that she was not allowed to attend the premiere of Gone With the Wind due to segregation. And I always wished she had lived longer. In her later years, when African American roles were finally breaking out of the stereotypes, she could have given some very impressive performances.


  6. Thanks for reading and commenting Terry! Yes, it's truly sad she did not live long enough to see what a positive impact she made. I too would appreciate seeing more of her performances as she aged, if only given more time with the lovely Ms. McDaniel. Thanks for contributing to our blogathon- I'm still trying to make my way to reading all the great posts!


  7. OK, I didn't remember where I heard that but I remember that story and it always reminds me about how times have changed, slowly, but for the better. It's a shame that Hattie had to take so much heat from all sides at different times while that change was happening. It would be an insult today for anyone to mention being “a credit to one's race” but that's another way things have changed.

    Thanks again for having me in the WAC and I'm looking forward to your post for the Christmas Movie Blogathon!


  8. My latest contact with her was in The Spoilers, with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich, and she was again a maid. She was a true pioneer, and one not to be forgotten. I loved your post!
    Thanks for co-hosting this blogathon!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂


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