by Anthony R. Green
Happy Monday, BIBA readers! Yesterday was the Oscars – the 91st Academy Awards ceremony. With the criticism and hashtag “Oscars So White”, I (along with many others) was curious to see the decisions of the Academy last night. While this blog is not to talk about the merits of the decisions, it is with sincerity that I congratulate all those who were awarded, especially Green Book, Mahershala Ali, Regina King, Spike Lee, Ruth E. Carter, Hannah Beachler, Alfonso Cuaron, all of the people of color who were behind this winners, and all of the people of color who I did not mention as winners and as nominations. Of special note, I am glad that Don Shirley’s story has entered the main stream, and sincerely hope that the anomaly of the Black pianist who happens to play classical music becomes (again) an accepted image. A blog about the genius of Shirley will come in future BIBA posts.
What this blog IS about is the first Black Oscar Winner: Hattie McDaniel. According to Wikipedia, Ms. McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children, whose parents (former enslaved human beings) were a singer of religious music (mother) and a soldier in the civil war (father). Born in 1893 in Wichita, Kansas, she eventually moves with her family to Colorado. Some of her siblings also pursued acting careers with success. Before acting, Ms. McDaniel worked as a singer-songwriter, recording artist, radio artist, entertainer, and more, often taking odd jobs as a cook or a maid to make ends meet. Her maid experience led to many maid roles in her early acting career, but her hard work, personal skills, and ability to “steal the scene” led to her gaining more credited roles, more important roles, and gaining friendships with some of the leading actors, actresses and Hollywood personalities of her day.
Her role in Gone With the Wind was highly sought after. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted her own maid to play the role, but Ms. McDaniel – who showed up to the audition in a maid’s uniform – was confident that she would get the part. As you can imagine, the language of the movie coupled with the implied morality of the movie was a significant problem for audiences of all races, one side claiming that McDaniel acquiesced to racist stereotypes and tropes, the other side claiming that Mammy’s close relationship to Scarlett was not realistic. Outside of the movie, Ms. McDaniel was victim to the segregation policies of the time; she could not attend the official premiere of the movie in Atlanta because of segregation laws, and she was segregated at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony of 1940, sitting alone with her escort and her agent. The official hotel hosting Oscar guests also had a No Blacks policy, which they temporarily ignored as a favor to Ms. McDaniel. Many in the Black community gave Ms. McDaniel quite a harsh reaction after her role and her win, but it is indisputable today that her win was a significant step forward for Black actors and actresses, and other artists dreaming of receiving an Academy Award.
Thank you, Hattie McDaniel, for paving the way for Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, and so many other nominated and winning Black and of color Academy Award winners!
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