From Vivien Leigh to James Cagney to Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel out-shined every single person around her in every scene she played. THAT is the definition of a star. She was born 121 years ago today, and we’re taking a moment to pay tribute to one of the most pivotal figures in 20th century African American history: a true trail-blazer who, in spite of the insurmountable odds against her, managed to make her own mark in Jim Crow America– and she did so with both her dignity in-tact and an overwhelming sense of self worth.
Here’s the thing about Hattie McDaniel. She is the only thing anyone pays attention to when she’s on screen. Was she a maid? Sure. But if you think for one solitary second that, for example, “Mammy” isn’t the strongest woman in the whole of Gone with the Wind (sorry, Scarlet darling, that includes you) then you have another think coming. Was she second fiddle? Sure. But if you watch her go toe-to-toe with the volcanic force of nature that was Paul Robeson, there’s no doubt on god’s green earth that this woman wasn’t in every way his equal. Was she segregated from the Gone with the Wind cast table at the 1940 Oscar ceremony? Yes. But she was also the first African American ever allowed to even sit inside Los Angeles’ deeply segregated Ambassador Hotel.
[pullquote cite=”Mabell Collins; McDaniels’ descendant” type=”right”]Every picture and every line, it belonged to Hattie. She knew she was supposed to be subservient, but she never delivered a subservient line.[/pullquote]
The point of this post is not to debate whether or not it was *right* for her to take the roles that she did. The point is to recognize what she was able to do with those roles; to realize exactly how skilled she was with her very unique instrument and how that one single foot-in-the-door is still being felt today— 121 years after her birth. Because this woman is the reason that there was a Dorothy Dandridge and a Ruby Dee. She is the reason that there is a Cicely Tyson and a Viola Davis and an Octavia Spencer. Let’s be honest: we wouldn’t even have a Sidney Poitier. She is the reason that African Americans, and all people of color–male and female–at least have the hope of trying to fulfill their dreams as an actor–in spite of racial barriers.
So here’s my response when I hear people who—from their position of 21st century entitled privilege and complete ignorance of just what it really meant to be a working black actor in Jim Crow America— badmouth Hattie McDaniel taking roles of servitude. “Excuse me, but do YOU have an Academy Award at home? No? Then you can just shut the hell up.” Instead, how about we just remember just how glorious Hattie really was.
The following are seven reasons that Hattie McDaniel really one of the strongest characters and fiercest females in film history.
1.) Because she was having ZERO of James Cagney’s Man-splaining in JOHNNY COME LATELY (1944)
2.) Because all she had to do was climb a staircase to snatch the Academy Award from Olivia de Havilland in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).
3.) Because her feature film debut in JUDGE PRIEST (1934) with Will Rogers is absolutely priceless.
4.) Because not only did she stop the otherwise unstoppable Scarlet O’Hara– she reminded her of a little thing called humility.
5.) Because she was NOT in the mood for any of Paul Robeson’s shit in SHOW BOAT (1936).
5.) Because of this moment of grace and dignity opposite Claudette Colbert in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944).
5.) And because of this, the moment that she broke the mold for every single person now living today.
God Bless this amazing woman. She was marvelous.