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Hattie McDaniel: An Oscar Legend

The Academy Awards are less than two weeks away, and with that, and Black History Month in mind, we want to remember Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel was an established radio and film actress before she played Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” but it was this role that made her career and cemented her as a film legend. Her endearing comedy and ability to scold and scoff her white charges earned her a Best Supporting Actress Award, the first given to a black actor. She was also the first black actor to attend the Academy Awards banquet.

Ironically, however, segregation laws prevented her from attending the Atlanta premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on December 15, 1939. And she, like the other black actors, were excluded from the souvenir program. Producer David O. Selznick attempted to bring McDaniel to the premiere, but MGM cautioned against it because Georgia’s segregation laws would have required her to stay in a “blacks only” hotel and she would have had to sit in a segregated part of the theater away from her fellow actors. Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), who McDaniel had befriended while working on another movie, threatened to boycott the premiere unless she was allowed to attend, but she urged him to go anyway. She did, however, attend the Hollywood debut, and her photo was featured in the program upon Selznick’s insistence. Although, McDaniel received the highest recognition for an actor, her career was not without criticism…McDaniel often played a maid, one of the few roles given to blacks, and was criticized by NAACP for accepting such roles. In response, McDaniel said, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.” She continued acting in film and on radio and television until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1951. She succumbed to the disease on October 2, 1952. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her radio acting and the other for her film contributions. She was inducted posthumously into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.

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