Reflecting on the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar

In its 94-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded an Oscar, one of the industry’s most coveted acting awards, to just 10 black women. This year, actress Angela Bassett could become the 11th name on that short list, continuing a legacy that began with top performer and Hollywood legend Hattie McDaniel in 1940.

Bassett is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, the same category McDaniel won for her role in the 1939 adaptation Gone With the Wind. McDaniel’s story has become synonymous with a long, complicated battle in Hollywood for fair consideration and proper respect for the careers of black artists. It’s a pursuit that represents an as-yet-unseen reality that’s often obscured by triumphant, hopeful moments like McDaniel’s Oscar.


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But McDaniel’s legacy is far greater than just a line in the annals of Oscar history, with the echo of her artistic ethos found in creating non-Academy shows in 2015 #OscarsSoWhite(Opens in a new tab) social media campaign and the outcry to recognize ensemble casts and diverse, human stories in the arts. In fact, the one-dimensional portrayal of McDaniel as just a historical Oscar winner is symptomatic of the problem itself, explained Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandson and custodian of her estate.

“The gift that Hattie gave me to research her and talk to people about her is that it was more than the Oscar,” he said.

Documenting this history has been a multi-generational goal of the McDaniel family, a baton passed to Goff by his father. Beyond the award, the 59-year-old says, McDaniel left her eternal fingerprints on every part of Hollywood she touched.

Something that doesn’t hold up as well as her Academy Award is the importance of the entire McDaniel family. If we took a broader look at McDaniel’s history, Goff says, he would be a Hollywood name mentioned in the same breath as the Barrymores.

McDaniel was born into a wealth of creativity. She got her start as a childhood Vaudeville performer who took to the stage alongside several of her 13 older siblings, including Goff’s great-grandmother Etta. The family wasn’t limited to acting either — McDaniel wrote and performed music, did radio shows and, to Goff’s surprise, even played the drums. In her own words she “played everything but the harp”.

In many ways, the family legacy is also one of unspoken activism, which began with McDaniel’s slave-born father’s involvement in the Union Civil War effort and continued in her and her siblings’ provocative early performances—in turn of the century, McDaniel was even playing in “whiteface”,(Opens in a new tab) a radical choice to overturn the popularity of white modeling shows. McDaniel’s presence as a Hollywood mentor, philanthropist and community builder lasted long after her historic Academy win, which Goff explained did little to overcome systemic racism at the time.

Credit: CBS/Getty Images

After the Oscars, McDaniel still suffered injustices at the hands of the industry and the gatekeepers of history. At the age of 47, her performance as Gone With the Windhis domestic servant (now often referred to in reviews of the wider caricature “Mammy”(Opens in a new tab)) was criticized by organizations such as the NAACP for promoting Black stereotypes. Many of its members nationwide The black community disapproved of her acting choices(Opens in a new tab) in debates about the definition of “racial progress”.

It was a limited creative reality that most black actors had to deal with at the time, Goff said, but also a role she had a personal attachment to, having been trained in domestic service alongside her mother. Other historians have reported that McDaniel explained that her take on the role was in fact a nod to the likes of Sojourner Truth(Opens in a new tab).

“Most black performers were really playing a subservient type of character. But Hattie didn’t come from that kind of space. If you look at her performances, she was confrontational. She would see what was on the written page and say, ‘This is what I’m working with.’ Let me put my personality in there,” Goff said. “It was either that or he was succumbing to what actors normally did, and he didn’t feel like that was going to advance progress for black performers.

A refrain shared by contemporary performers and activists, the awards did not change McDaniel’s lived reality of being a black woman in the United States. She was retaliated against by her white neighbors after she bought her own house, and it was later denied her wish to be buried in the famous Hollywood cemetery(Opens in a new tab). And while her Oscar plaque was posthumously donated to Howard University, as she had requested, it is now allegedly missing(Opens in a new tab). Goff said the Academy told him just a few years ago that he would be replaced, but that still hasn’t materialized.

A black and white photo of Hattie McDaniel posing in front of a photo exhibit.

Credit: Getty Images

Despite living in a country that has “always seen us as subhuman,” as Goff previously wrote in San Diego Tribune(Opens in a new tab)it’s McDaniel’s poise and tenacity that should be heralded, he told Mashable.

“That’s the thing that impresses me about Hattie. It’s not the Oscar. It’s not the fact that she made it in Hollywood despite the obstacles. What impresses me about Hattie is that while all this was going on… she’s compassionate Imagine that all those doors slam in your face and you still have that humanity. That’s courage.”

That’s not to say McDaniel’s victory shouldn’t still be discussed at a time when black communities must fight for representation, recognition and basic rights. This story serves more as a reminder to the film industry in general that the Academy Awards are still mostly white and male(Opens in a new tab), despite some improvements. “It had a subtle impact, step by step, so that when the next person comes along in the next generation, it might be even easier for them,” Goff said.

McDaniel, who was barred from attending the world premiere of her own film, broke barriers as she attended the 12th Academy Awards, held at the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub at The Ambassador Hotel(Opens in a new tab). He entered the ceremony to the applause of reformers and activists, and at odds with industry elites, before breaking precedent by receiving the first Oscar ever awarded to a black actor.

“I sincerely hope that I will always be a credit to my tribe and to the film industry,” McDaniel said in her acceptance speech. “My heart is too full to tell you exactly how I feel.”

But it would take 50 years for another black woman to be honored with an Oscar, this time recognizing Whoopi Goldberg as Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1990 film Ghost. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Halle Berry made her own history as the first black woman to win the coveted Best Actress award for her role in 2001 The Dance of the Monsters.

Whoopi Goldberg holds an Oscar while standing in front of a white background.

Goldberg won an Academy Award for her performance in “Ghost” in 1990.
Credit: John Barr / Liaison / Getty Images

Halle Berry holds an Oscar while standing in front of a life-size version of the golden statue.

Berry shows off her history-making award for her 2001 performance in “Monster’s Ball.”
Credit: Getty Images

In all, only 10 black women have won an Oscar, a list short enough that it can easily be recited: Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress, Dream girls), Mo’Nique (Best Supporting Actress, Precious), Octavia Spencer (Supporting Actress, The help)Lupita Nyong’o (Best Actress, 12 years slave), Viola Davis (Supporting Actress, Fences), Regina King (Best Actress, If Beale Street could talk), and Ariana DeBose (Best Actress, West Side Story), in addition to McDaniel, Goldberg, and Berry. Berry is the only winner in the Best Actress category.

“[Hattie] it makes me think of all women,” Goff said. “Don’t all women do a million things but only get credit for two or three? You crush it all the time and you don’t get your fair share of recognition. This is what Hattie went through. That’s what my mom went through.”

The fact that seven of the 10 Oscars awarded to black women have been awarded in the past 20 years may inspire optimism, although there are modern examples of black performers being continually burdened with difficult creative decisions like those faced by the McDaniels decades ago. In 2011, Spencer spoke about his fear of becoming a typist(Opens in a new tab) as a maid for her award-winning role as Minny in The help. Bassett, now nominated for her role as Queen Ramonda Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverpreviously shared that she turned down the role that won Halle Berry her Oscar for Best Actress, calling the role “such a stereotype of black women and sexuality.”(Opens in a new tab)

As the first Academy Award-nominated performer for a role in the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe and for a film considered by many to be an icon of Black pride and excellence(Opens in a new tab), Bassett’s nod could represent hope for a shift toward overdue recognition. But as television and academy audiences await the 2023 Best Actress results, it’s highly likely that Bassett – who has been nominated just twice in her four-decade career – will remain on a long list of insufficiently recognized.

“It’s like a big machine that has all this power,” Goff said. “You’re trying to get on and ride, but at the same time you’re trying to change gears, change the direction of where it’s going. That’s a really hard thing to do.” Despite the expanded access now given to various creatives in the film industry, he said, if the same people operate the machine, they won’t want to be taken away.

Ultimately, though, the machine has just as much to lose by concealing recognition as the artists themselves. “I think you reap what you sow,” Goff said. “If a segment of the population doesn’t feel valued and the industry is going through what it’s going through right now, will it ever be able to rebuild itself?

“What you don’t want is a body of artists — who have a lot to give — to stop caring. Because then you’re going to miss out on a lot of great stories.”

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