Monday, September 29, 2008

Hattie McDaniel

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I'm spending a lot of time with Hattie McDaniel right now, and enjoying every minute of it. The perennial answer to a trivia question (Who was the first African-American to win an Oscar?), McDaniel is a true star, and one that would certainly have been bigger, if Hollywood was willing to give lead roles to black women in the 1930s (not so much).

McDaniel's family heritage is a story that is almost too amazing to be true. Her father, Henry McDaniel, was a slave in Tennessee when the Civil War began, and escape to freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Henry then enlisted in the Union Army and fought against his former owners. Hattie and her family moved around constantly, while she built a career as a performer and singer, eventually gaining some notoriety as a blues singer, which undoubtedly contributed to her larger-than-life persona. By the time she made her way to Hollywood, she had been playing the vaudeville and music circuit for over twenty years. She was a gifted comic an dramatic actress and more importantly, an important step forward for African-Americans in films.

On one level, the sight of an actress of McDaniel's talent consistently playing a maid for the white stars is demeaning, particularly to contemporary audiences. But Hattie imbued her characters with such strength and forcefulness of character that at times they seemed to be the ones who were in charge. No doubt this stemmed from her early days in the theater, when she not only confronted the taboo of women performing in minstrel shows, but she took the "black mammy" concept so far that it crossed over into conscious parody, a meta-performance designed to critique the perception African-Americans on stage.

For evidence of McDaniel's ferocity and comic timing, just look at this scene from "Alice Adams." Lower-class Katharine Hepburn and her family are trying to impress Fred MacMurray, and so they hire Hattie to serve dinner for them, under the pretense that they are wealthy. McDaniel is having none of the charade, and lets her contempt be known:


This is a far cry from the lazy, no'count portrayals that showed up in many films. Hattie McDaniel delighted audiences, and within the framework on 1930s society, she pushed her way into some kind of dignity. And, as she always said in interviews, "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one!"

And then, of course, there is "Gone With the Wind." As much as the film centers on Scarlett O'Hara, Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is, on one hand, a stereotype. Yet McDaniel, who had the film tailored to her talents by David O. Selznick, carries much of the weight of the film, and narratively speaking, literally keeps the family and the Tara plantation alive. She's the only character in the film that Clark Gable speaks to with true respect (in scenes heightened by the fact that they got along famously offscreen).

And of course, she won an Oscar for her role as Best Supporting Actress. I find her acceptance speech extremely moving, and an example to actors today who prattle on and on and on.



P.S. If you're interested in Hattie McDaniel and other black character actors, check out Donald Bogle's extremely entertaining book "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks."

Suggested Viewing:
-Alice Adams
-The Mad Miss Manton
-Gone With the Wind

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