“Dame in the Game” has previously focused on the talents and achievements of white women in the industry. Sadly, because of the realities of racism inherent in the studio system and classic Hollywood, there are far fewer women of color who had the opportunities to define themselves as “groundbreaking” within the system. Still, this column will strive to honor the achievements of women in our past as equally as possible, and so this month, we turn to a woman who was notable for achieving numerous firsts as a black woman in the entertainment industry.
Hattie McDaniel was and continues to be a controversial figure in cinematic history because of her tendency to accept roles that perpetuated racist stereotypes. Most famously, she portrayed Mammy in Gone with the Wind, a role that was a variation on the domestic roles she played throughout her Hollywood career. Ironically, this stereotyped role earned McDaniel a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, making her the first African American both to be nominated and win an Academy Award. McDaniel made numerous strides both onscreen and off, and she made the best of the opportunities available to her in an extremely racist and unequal climate. For these reasons, she is our “Dame in the Game” this July.
McDaniel, the child of a slave turned Union Army soldier, was no stranger to the impact of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and poverty on the lives of black Americans. She had grown up in a household plagued by constant poverty, and she began performing on stage at a young age with her siblings as a way of making extra money to keep the family afloat. McDaniel spent more than twenty years paying her dues as a vaudeville performer and blues singer before ever making her way to Hollywood.
Onstage and on the radio, McDaniel was able to push the boundaries of what were deemed acceptable roles for black women in the era, using the traditions of minstrel shows to satirize racist perceptions of black women. She wrote many of her own sketches and shows; unlike, traditional vaudeville, which relegated women to supporting roles, her productions centered on women, with men playing only minor parts, if not entirely absent from the story.
McDaniel claimed that she was the first African-American woman to sing on the radio with an orchestra. Her career as a blues singer (and songwriter) enabled Hattie to achieve success across color lines in a traditionally black form. What’s more, her songs, especially the ones she wrote herself, gave her a platform to express contemporary emotions, themes, and desires in defiance of stereotypes. Her stage and songwriting achievements have often been forgotten in lieu of her Hollywood career, which she did not even begin until her late thirties.
When McDaniel moved to Los Angeles, she maintained her career as a singer and stage performer, while also beginning to transition into film. She expressed her true voice onstage, while being reduced to the roles of servants and slaves on screen. Yet McDaniel sought to assert some minimal control over her onscreen persona, hiding subversive pokes at racist, white hierarchy behind comedic roles. While relegated to subservient roles, she infused her characters with intelligence, a disdain/disgust for the people she served, and a sense that the house would come crashing down around the characters’ shoulders without her leadership. She routinely made her characters brash and opinionated, refusing to hold her tongue, as might be expected of the simpering, stereotypical figure of domestic help.
McDaniel often felt that her ability to infiltrate white Hollywood at all, no matter what roles she played, was a step forward. To her, earning a sizeable salary on picture-to-picture contracts canceled out the effects of the character traits of her roles. Having often worked as a maid herself when she was younger to keep food on the table, Hattie felt no shame in these roles, remarking, “I can be a maid for $7 a week, or I can play a maid for $700 a week.”
Her instincts that refusal to play the roles she was offered would end her career probably weren’t wrong, considering the racism she still suffered regularly as a studio employee. When Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta in 1939, McDaniel was forbidden to appear or even to have her photograph in the commemorative program alongside her white co-stars. At the Oscars, she was seated at a table with other black talent, segregated from white Hollywood.
McDaniel also was the first black woman to ever headline a radio show, taking over the title role of Beulah from a white woman in 1947 and making it a smash-hit for Proctor & Gamble. Despite earning the distinction of headlining a radio show, McDaniel still came under fire for Beulah, as it was another domestic role. However, she made crucial changes to the show, including refusing to play the role with an exaggerated black dialect. More importantly, she requested that her part-time publicist, Ruby Berkley Goodwin, who was also an activist and journalist, write scripts for the show. Goodwin was able to lend a black woman’s voice to Beulah and help move the show away from its offensive roots.
Because she belonged to a bastion of actors that accepted the terms (and racist roles) of Hollywood, McDaniel earned the ire of many black Americans, even coming under fire from the leaders of the NAACP for participating in the setback of racial equality by perpetuating stereotypes.
Yet, McDaniel also did her fair share of equal rights campaigning that went largely unrecognized. She believed that black actors should wage the fight for better roles and inclusion in Hollywood themselves and resented the NAACP’s interference in her career. Spurred on by this belief, she formed the Hollywood Fair Play Committee, which advocated with SAG and the studios for better representation of black actors in Hollywood (onscreen and off).
Hattie’s most resounding contribution to civil rights came outside of Hollywood. After the success of Gone with the Wind, McDaniel was able to afford to purchase a home in the historic West Adams district, where she regularly held parties for a mixture of black entertainers and members of the Hollywood elite, including Clark Gable. Like many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, West Adams was under restrictive housing covenants that prohibited nonwhites from purchasing property in the area. McDaniel bought her house in spite of this law and by 1945, fifty-seven black families had settled in the area, which became known as “Sugar Hill.” In the summer of 1945, eight white homeowners decided to file suit against their black neighbors living in defiance of the housing covenants.
McDaniel may have accepted the status quo onscreen, but she led the fight against racism in her neighborhood. She organized her black West Adams neighbors and partnered with Loren Miller, a local black attorney, to fight the segregation of neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In what became known as the “Sugar Hill Case,” McDaniel went to court with 250 supporters to argue that the restrictive housing covenants violated the fourteenth amendment. The judge ruled the covenants unconstitutional, but the white homeowners immediately appealed the decision, eventually landing the “Sugar Hill” case at the Supreme Court among other restrictive covenant cases. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled all restrictive housing covenants unconstitutional, insuring that McDaniel and her neighbors could keep their homes and securing an important civil rights’ victory at McDaniels’ urging.
Despite these efforts and support from new black actors like Lena Horne, McDaniel spent much of her later years trying to justify her accomplishments and the roles she had accepted. Upon her death, she was even denied her request to be buried in the Hollywood Park Cemetery because of her race. Her life was a constant battle against the racist climate she lived in and those among her own race who felt her complicit in upholding it.
Since her passing in 1952, McDaniel has remained a controversial figure for the same reasons she faced criticism during her lifetime. In recent years, she has been met with greater understanding and respect. Spike Lee argued that actors like McDaniel were “great talents and they were doing the best with what was being offered them at the time.”
Most strikingly, 2010 Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique played tribute to McDaniel in her Oscars speech and attire. (It should be noted that since McDaniel’s groundbreaking victory in 1940, only fourteen black actors have won the Oscar across all categories). For glamorous outings, McDaniel made a signature of wearing gardenias in her hair, and she did so on the night she won the Academy Award. Wearing gardenias in her own hair, Mo’Nique thanked “Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all the she had to, so that I would not have to” –a fitting tribute to a groundbreaking woman whose own efforts were often shunned and ignored by her contemporaries.
For those interested in learning more about Hattie McDaniel, please see Jill Watts’ “Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood,” which was instrumental in my research for this column.