Everyone wants to feel like they are seen and heard and that they matter. This is why representation in the entertainment industry and diversity in all aspects of life are so important. Seeing someone who belongs to a community that you belong to can bring you hope and make you excited for the opportunities that you could have in the future.
This is one of the many reasons why Hattie McDaniel is still seen as such an icon almost 70 years after her death. McDaniel was a highly successful and popular Black actress and became one of the biggest Black movie stars in the world during the 1930s until her death in October 1952. During this time, segregation was still very much alive – something that McDaniel, unfortunately, experienced quite a bit throughout her career, as well as racism from others in the industry. To this day, people are still fighting for equality, and it’s important to look back on some of the men and women who helped pave the way for progress.
McDaniel even changed the course of history – becoming the first Black woman to ever win an Oscar for her role in “Gone With the Wind” in 1940. However, McDaniel’s career up to that point and even after was still met with backlash and hurtful actions because of the color of her skin. She even accepted her award in a segregated hotel, fortunately still being acknowledged for the remarkable talent that she had. Read on to find out more about this actress’ career and how she changed the course of history.
Making A Name For Herself
Hattie McDaniel (1940), (Bettmann/contributor/Getty images)
Born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children. Her family was filled with talented individuals, including her brother Sam who was an actor, and her sister Etta who was also an actress. McDaniel herself was a songwriter and performer but struggled to make it big and to find work.
In 1931, the aspiring star moved to Los Angeles, taking jobs as a maid or a cook until she was able to find work as an actress. Her second film appearance was in “I’m No Angel” in 1933, in which McDaniel played a maid. Afterward, she went on to receive several other uncredited roles in other films before joining the Screen Actors Guild in 1934.
Finally, it seemed like McDaniel’s career was really picking up, as she was put under contract to appear in a few films. According to the Hollywood Reporter, McDaniel was cast as a maid a whopping 74 times over the course of her career. She also had a friendship with actor Clark Gable and was married a total of four times.
It wasn’t long before McDaniel became one of the biggest Black movie stars in the industry and landed her biggest role with “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. The movie was a huge success, receiving 10 Academy Awards from its thirteen nominations at the 12th Academy Awards in 1940, and went on to become the highest-earning film at that time. Out of the 10 Oscars the film received, one was awarded to McDaniel, making her the first Black actress to win an Academy Award, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Leaving Her Mark On The World
Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel (1939), (LMPC/Getty Images)Although the win was something to celebrate, McDaniel wasn’t able to accept her honor in the same way other stars were. According to the Hollywood Reporter, McDaniel had previously shown producer David O. Selznick a huge stack of “Gone With the Wind” reviews, praising her performance, which ultimately led to her Oscar nomination in the best-supporting actress category.
The awards were held at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel. Once she arrived, McDaniel was escorted away from the “Gone with the Wind” table and instead to a small table against a far wall, as the hotel had a strict segregation policy; Black people weren’t even allowed there.
As the daughter of two slaves, McDaniel gave a heartfelt speech as she accepted her award in the segregated hotel. “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future,” she said. “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
Sadly, the industry wasn’t through with mistreating McDaniel. She had left her Oscar to Howard University, but the award went missing after her death. According to the Hollywood Reporter, McDaniel found success on the radio in her later years, taking over the comedy series “Beulah,” making her the first Black woman to star in a radio show. However, McDaniel fell sick while a TV version of the show was in the works, and she died on Oct. 26, 1952, of breast cancer at the age of 57. McDaniel’s final wish had been to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery but was ultimately denied because of the color of her skin.
Hattie McDaniel (1939), (FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images)
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