Is Oscar Prejudiced? How Hattie McDaniels’ Story Still Haunts Us Today
In the biggest moment of her life, Hattie McDaniels walked all the way from back of the room to accept the 1940 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and become the first Black Oscar recipient in history. The Los Angeles hotel where the ballroom ceremonies took place was segregated. Special favors were necessary to even allow the black actress into the room. At her death, Ms. McDaniels’ body was turned away from her chosen Hollywood Cemetery for burial because of her color. Posthumously, an historical Black American university misplaced her donated Oscar, after a low and insulting value appraisal. Unto today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) refuses to replace it. History shows black Americans too often typecast as violent or unintelligent in American motion pictures, far behind more expansive images offered by British cinema and African films. Notably, Nigeria’s “Nollywood” film culture depicts whole black characters in a wide range of lifestyles and milieus. While such indignities continue to occur on-camera, the situation is not too much different behind the scenes. In a season when AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs defended Hollywood’s efforts to become more inclusive of women and minorities, no black or Latino actors were in the running for Oscars. Few (Best Supporting Actress winner Octavia Spencer and SELMA producer Oprah Winfrey aside) were even in the audience. Is Oscar prejudiced?
Ava Duvernay’s all-Black cast picture SELMA, a retrospective of Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts to lead peaceful protests for African-American voter rights in 1969, received a Best Picture nomination and Best Song win for its theme ‘Glory.’ This was in stark contrast to last year. In 2014 male British director Steve McQueen was not only nominated as Best Director for the Best Picture-winning 12 Years A Slave, the gut-wrenching tale of a kidnapped free Black man in America. His Kenyan and British Black actors were as well. One, Lupita N’yongo, famously won and became the first Black African to take home an Oscar. It is confusing: films about Black Americans without Black Americans starring or directing seem rewarded, but films by Black Americans for Black Americans are ignored. It took Selma, a film about African-American Jim Crow history, to reignite conversation on such blatant discrepancies.
Many who outcried Selma’s perceived snubs were either too young or too unaware of the AMPAS’s similar choices in the late nineties, the era of the Black American female-written and directed film Eve's Bayou (1997) as well as 1998's Beloved (adapted from the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Toni Morrison and starring Oprah Winfrey). Both films explored Black family dynamics within lush and breathtaking cinematic landscapes. While both films received boundless critical acclaim, neither received much awarding in subsequent awards seasons. To date, only 14 Black actors have received The Oscar. The Los Angeles chapter of the politically active National Action Network only cancelled its planned protest of the 2015 show for this fact to honor Duvernay’s request.
Despite the willingness of many African-Americans to peacefully allow the few representatives in Hollywood to enjoy their moment, it is clear this conversation is open and will not go away anytime soon.
The 75th Anniversary of one of America's most beloved movies, Gone with the Wind, is also the 75th Anniversary of McDaniels' historic win for Best Supporting Actress for it. The Hollywood Reporter's February conversation on Hattie McDaniel’s startling history of racism in Hollywood, as well as ongoing discrimination for black performers in the business, coincides with this season when the criticism #OscarsSoWhite took off.
In addition to recasting Hattie McDaniels for today's audiences as less of an easy-street heroine who won the first Oscar for Blacks and more of a lifelong victim of emotional abuse in Hollywood due to her color, the THR piece includes a thorough biography and portrait of McDaniels' life around the time of her groundbreaking award. It also discusses such relatives as her sister Etta, the descendant most responsible for the continuation of the childless McDaniels’ bloodline unto today.
Many scholars and actors are determined to keep McDaniels' life and work in its proper place in American history. Her living descendants continue to fight for Ms. McDaniels' basic rights and dignities even after her death. Her great grandnephew Kevin Goff is a Hollywood actor, film director and jazz artist. Mr. Goff is hard at work on The Hattie McDaniel Project, a 3-part documentary on his legendary aunt's life. And, as McDaniels’ Oscar statue remains missing, more people are asking when other Black Americans will find their Oscar on the shelf.
For more background on just how far (or not) Blacks have come in Hollywood, check out: Oscar's First Black Winner Accepted Her Honor in a Segregated 'No Blacks' Hotel in L.A.