The Other Oscar Winner Who Took a While to Get Onstage — Hattie McDaniel
The great shame in last night’s Academy Award ‘#EnvelopeGate’ has nothing to do with PWC’s accounting, Warren Beatty’s perceived senility nor the flickering-ecstasy-then-agony of La La Land’s producers.
No, the real shame is the headlines that the gaffe robbed from Moonlight’s monumental achievement — the headlines that weren’t written.
Open any paper today (wait — scratch that, you wouldn’t need to open it to see the front page), and you’ll read about La La Land with a side of Moonlight. “Best Picture ‘La La Land’… er … ‘Moonlight’” reads the Arizona Republic. “YOU HAD ONE JOB!” screams the NY Daily News, with the byline
“Epic Oscar screwup as ‘La La Land’ is announced Best Picture — but ‘Moonlight’ really wins”.
In an alternate universe, the one where Warren Beatty is handed the right envelope, the headlines would have focused on the fact that just a year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy led to the inclusion of more women and people of color into the Academy, a $1.5m independent black film with a black director, black writers and black actors about a gay black man beat the odds-on favorite (a story glamorizing the Hollywood establishment of old). Mahershala Ali, who is also a Muslim, won Best Supporting Actor.
Some might jibe that Hollywood is so rigged against diversity, that even Oscar winners have difficulty getting on stage to accept their award.
It’s an important story to tell, in 2017. But it’s not a new one.
In 1940, the first ever black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, faced her own struggles in accepting her award — her struggles are a story worth retelling.
Nominated for her role as ‘Mammy’ the maid in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, Hattie’s attendance at the ceremony was no foregone conclusion. The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles had a ‘No Blacks’ policy. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, had called in a special favor to ask the Hotel to make an exception and allow Hattie to bypass their segregation policy for the night. (No such luck for Hattie at the film’s premiere in Atlanta — she was barred from attending, Clark Gable threatened to boycott in solidarity).
In those days, the Oscars audience sat at tables arranged by movie and ate a meal. The Gone with the Wind team (the results had already been leaked and the near clean-sweep surprised no-one) had prime position for the frequent trips to the podium. David O. Selznick, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Laurence Olivier and Jock Whitney (Clark Gable skipped the ceremony, probably as he already knew he wouldn’t win Best Actor) and their guests all wined and dined gleefully together.
It was a festive atmosphere on a leap day. The room, The Cocoanut Grove, was filled to the brim as waiters in white jackets scurried back and forth with bottles of champagne or silver service trays slung high over their shoulder, navigating the long narrow banquet tables, some crammed with as many as 14 people and little room to maneuver.
But not poor Hattie. She, her date Ferdinand Yorba (also black) and her white agent William Meiklejohn (one of the only to represent black studio actors at the time) were not welcome at the main tables. The three of them sat in the far back against the edge of the room crammed at a small table meant for two, lucky enough to be in the room if not fully of it.
Nevertheless, Hattie was a popular winner that night. Adorned in white gardenias she received a standing ovation on entering, and her acceptance speech was reported to have many in the room in tears.
“I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
And like that the first black Oscar winner, choking on her words, cut her speech short and tearfully made her way back through the maze of white winners, nominees and guests eventually back to her little table in the rear.
Hattie McDaniel lived her roles. Born in extreme poverty to two emancipated slaves in 1895, her father was a Civil War veteran who served in a United States Colored Troops regiment. When not playing a maid in Hollywood, Hattie was working as one.
She was a controversial figure who faced criticism from both sides. Southern Whites were abhorred by her Gone with the Wind character’s “familiarity” with her white owners, particularly the way she admonished the young Scarlet O’Hara. Many African American groups were outraged by her reinforcing of black stereotypes that celebrated slavery and were too “agreeable”.
The NAACP were agitating for roles that were not servants happy with their station, lazy and dimwitted. They viewed actors like Hattie as part of the problem, part of the white establishment apparatus that kept better roles out of reach. “No Hope For The Negro In Films, Says Writer, As Long As Hattie McDaniel ‘Toms’”, headlined an article in the Cleveland Gazette in 1945.
Hattie was non-apologetic:
“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.”
As one final insult, in 1952 Hattie’s dying wish to be buried in white gardenias in Hollywood Cemetery was refused. It was still segregated.
It would be 23 long years before another African American would win an Oscar (Sidney Poitier for Best Actor in 1963), 51 years before another black woman won (Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost).
And it’s 77 years before last night’s win for Moonlight as Best Picture— not the first black film to win, but certainly the first to not be explicitly about race. A film not just in the room last night, but of it.
It could be remembered as the moment we broke through the barrier in Hollywood to see black films and black roles as more than the stereotypes reinforcing existing divides, but as simply great films and performances.
But unfortunately it’s more likely remembered as the gaffe-prone Oscar that La La Land didn’t win. It still seems, like Hattie, that it’s much harder to get up on that stage than it should be.