Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” an unforgettable movie based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Having seen the movie many times in my life, I watched it again last night with no expectations whatsoever. I have become ashamed to enjoy this film, for it is clearly racist in practically every scene and characterization. And yet, watching the film for the umpteenth time, I became fascinated with a truly moving performance: Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of the servant Mammy.
Hattie took amazing amounts of flak for accepting the role, both before and after the film’s release. Chief among her tormentors was the NAACP, whose president urged her to turn the role down while simultaneously lobbying David O. Selznick to hire an African American cultural advisor to the film. Cast member Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) called her a sellout. Practically all of Hattie’s roles were maids or servants of some sort. Her response to criticism: “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.” At least part of her willingness to play Mammy had to come from the fact that she was paid $450 a week to do so. That was a lot of money for anyone to earn in 1939.
And yet, her performance in the role brought a humanity, a depth, a strength to the character that no scriptwriter could have envisioned. Her character is a very strong woman, despite the fact that, having nowhere to go after the war, she opts to stay with her white “family” in the same capacity she held as a slave. Her monologue about the death of Bonnie Butler and its aftermath, delivered to Melanie upon the stairs to Rhett’s bedroom, is heart-rending to the extreme. When I heard it last night, I finally understood why Hattie won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. When she accepted that award, she became not only the first African American to win an Academy Award; she became the first African American ever to attend the awards banquet. Perhaps this was some consolation for her having been barred from attending the premiere of the film in Atlanta, where the theatres were segregated. And yet even then, when Clark Gable announced that if the black actors couldn’t attend the premiere, then neither would he, it was Hattie McDaniel who persuaded him to attend “for the good of the film.”
Hattie never entirely lived down the criticism that rained down after “Gone with the Wind,” and her movie roles became fewer and further between throughout the 1940’s. She returned to her radio roots as “Beulah” (the first African American woman in a leading role on a radio show intended for a wide audience) shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1952.
Think what you will about her acceptance of “degrading” roles, her “selling out” for money over principle, or whatever else her critics have called it. She was a pioneer, a great actress who not only went where none of her peers had gone before, but who made the rest of us feel joy and pain right along with her. She blazed the trail for many who came later.