Women's History Month
Splinters of wood are the ones that start a fire. (Kenya)
I grew up understanding Hollywood to be racist and sexist (not to mention age-ist). A plus-sized Black woman like Hattie McDaniel was therefore exceptional in getting screen credits as an actress, no matter how limited the roles she was offered. Two plus-sized Black women featured in this year's Oscar awards. Like Hattie in 1939, Mo'Nique took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Time will tell how wide a choice of roles will now be offered to Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe (stars of the movie Precious).
According to a Jamaican proverb, "Donkey say the world not level." Lena Horne, even in the Jim Crow era, negotiated contracts restricting the parts she would accept - no maid roles. But Lena (slim, light-skinned) didn't fit the racist Aunt Jemima stereotype any more than Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams today. Plus-sized Black women still face challenges in finding an acceptable range of roles.
Hattie has had her critics for playing roles that stereotyped Blacks. She was a professional singer-songwriter, comedienne, and performer on radio and television. Indeed she was the first Black woman to sing on the radio in America. However, she rarely played any roles, large or small, other than as someone's maid. Hattie won her part in Gone With the Wind by appearing at the audition in an authentic maid's uniform. One film, The Little Colonel, was particularly offensive to the Black community. It showed Black servants yearning for the days in the South when massa was in charge.
When she first went to Hollywood, she worked as a maid or a cook because she could not get acting roles of any kind. When finally she appeared in a radio show, she was a maid. Her salary was so low that she had to continue her job as a maid in order to pay the bills. When the NAACP criticized her for taking roles that demeaned her race, she said, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7."
Racism was a constant for all of Hattie's career. For example, she could not attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind unless she were willing to book into a "blacks only" hotel and sit in the Black section of the theatre. In addition, her photo could not appear in any souvenir program for the South. Her friend Clark Gable objected on her behalf and threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere. Hattie persuaded him to attend.
Hattie pushed back where she could. Southern audiences objected to some of her roles because she played maids who were independent, sharp-tongued and by no means subservient. She organized her Black neighbours to stand up against whites who cited a covenant that would have prevented Blacks from owning property in the wealthy area where she bought her home.
Even in her death she encountered race prejudice. She expressed the wish to be buried alongside other film stars. However, the owner of the cemetry refused to allow any Blacks to be interred there. More than forty years later, the current owners relented, but Hattie's family decided not to disturb her remains.
Respect is due to Hattie for her achievements in a time hostile to upward mobility of Blacks. She was the first Black actress to win an Academy award - for Best Supporting Role in Gone with The Wind.
Mo'Nique, the latest on a short list of Black actresses to win Oscars, thanked Hattie “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.” Mo'Nique has pledged to present Hattie's story on film.
Hattie also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner to be honored with a US postage stamp.
Let us watch the career movement of Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe to see how far we have come since Hattie's day.
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