What is so heartbreaking about this video is we would never know that, on the biggest moment of her life, Hattie McDaniels had to walk all the way from the back of the room in order to accept the The Oscar making her the first Black American recipient to do so in history. The hotel where the ballroom ceremonies took place was segregated. Special favors were necessary to even allow the black actress into the room.
I am usually an optimist. Yet I am skeptical about The Hollywood Reporter’s amazingly excellent February conversation about ongoing and historical discrimination for black performers in the business. The timing of its publication coincides with a season when the criticism #OscarsSoWhite took off, with an African-American female Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences president dispatched to calm the protests.
While I have studied enough to have not even expected any mainstream awards blitz for a movie centered upon articulate and respectable Blacks in America (as opposed to helpless, degenerated victims or foreign Blacks), I sympathized with those who felt the need to outcry SELMA was snubbed. I had gotten that heartbreak out of my system in the late nineties. I went crying to my fellow black female cinema studies colleagues and enthusiasts about Eve’s Bayou (1997) and 1998’s Beloved (yet another time Oprah Winfrey did something brilliant, but power dynamics dictated the perception she failed). I knew the hopes for Selma’s Director Ava Duvernay from her community would necessitate disappointment. I was shocked even one nomination came.
What makes me believe this stunning tribute to Hattie McDaniel is a truly authentic gesture is its timing: we are in the 75th Anniversary of one of America’s most beloved movies Gone with the Wind, thus also the 75th Anniversary of McDaniels’ historic win.
No matter the agenda for finally bringing Ms. McDaniels and these concerns to a much louder forefront than Black scholars and activists can do on our owns, it is startling work the writers and reporters do in this new issue, to hit newsstands February 27th and online now. In addition to recasting Hattie McDaniels for today’s audiences as less of an easy-street heroine who won the first Oscar for Blacks and more of a lifelong victim of emotional abuse in Hollywood due to her color, any Millennials who love Hollywood but never knew Hattie can no longer say they were not told. The piece includes a thorough biography and portrait of McDaniels’ life around the time of her groundbreaking award as part of the cast of the American classic Gone With the Wind, as well as the personal history of such relatives as her sister Etta and Etta’s grandson Edgar Goff.
Most heartwarming and significant are the tributes from others determined to keep McDaniels’ life and work in its proper place in American history, including scholars and actors as well as her living descendants who continue to fight for Ms. McDaniels’ basic rights and dignities even after her death (she was turned away from her chosen Hollywood Cemetery for burial because of her color, and her famous Oscar plaque and later statue was stolen years ago with the Academy’s refusal to replace it). But Ms. McDaniels will soon rest well in peace.
Her great grandniece and Yale University student administrator Kelli Goff-Crews notes McDaniels’ torment in Hollywood meant she was no “stage mom,” and she did not want her lineage scarred by working in entertainment. Despite this caution, her great grandnephew Kevin Goff is a Hollywood actor, film director and jazz artist. He is joined by his family and supporters in tireless efforts to commemorate not only a matriarch in his own family but in the family of Black Hollywood. Mr. Goff will soon premiere The Hattie McDaniel Project, a 3-part documentary on his legendary aunt’s life.
So if you do nothing this Academy Awards Season, please read this: Oscar’s First Black Winner Accepted Her Honor in a Segregated ‘No Blacks’ Hotel in L.A.