She’s the first African American to win an Oscar, but because Hattie McDaniel (June 10, 1893 – October 26, 1952) spent her career mostly playing maids and slaves, she didn’t always get a lot of respect for her work. But she was still a trail-blazer, and as she famously said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” McDaniel took the opportunities she had as an actor and made the most of them.
Hattie McDaniel began performing early with her sister Etta, creating minstrel shows and routines for Black audiences that parodied white stereotypes. In the 1920s, she sang blues and wrote some of her own songs, like “Boo Hoo Blues.” McDaniel sang in the chorus of a touring production of Show Boat in 1929, but the tour was cancelled by the stock market crash, so she headed to Hollywood. From 1930 to 1952, she played nearly 100 roles in film and lastly TV, not always credited by name, and often portraying domestic servants of some type. Her 1939 Gone With the Wind role and Oscar win was a standout, but it angered Black intellectuals like the leader of the NAACP who complained about Black actors taking stereotypical roles
Offscreen, McDaniel did work with the NAACP and helped fight a racist housing covenant in her Southern California neighborhood that became known as the Black Beverly Hills. She had legendary house parties where people of different races mixed easily, including Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Cab Calloway, Louella Parsons, Paul Robeson, Bing Crosby, Louise Beavers, Duke Ellington, and Esther Williams. Hattie McDaniel also supported the World War II efforts by serving as chair of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee.
While Hattie McDaniels may have a small role in these frock flicks, it’s important to honor her contribution and admire how she made her way in the world as a successful working artist.
Annie in Operator 13 (1934)
Aunt Dilsey in Judge Priest (1934)
Asia in Little Men (1934)
Liza in Harmony Lane (1935)
Becky ‘Mom Beck’ Porter in The Little Colonel (1935)
Queenie in Show Boat (1936)
Dehlia in Zenobia (1939)
Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939)
Callie in They Died With Their Boots On (1941)
Aunt Tempy in Song of the South (1946)
What historical costume movies with Hattie McDaniel have you seen?