February 29 – Leap Day, 1940. A special day in the history of the Oscars, and in the life of Hattie McDaniel, born in 1895, the daughter of two former slaves. On this night McDaniel would rise from the small table against a far wall where she had been assigned because she was black, and make her way forward to receive her embossed Oscar plaque for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
It took a special request from producer, David O. Selznick to convince the Ambassador Hotel to even allow McDaniel in the building due to its strict segregationist policy. She had been the first black woman to sing on American radio. And now, she would be the first black person of either sex to receive an Academy Award.
In any category.
The years following McDaniel’s Oscar win weren’t kind to her. She had made a career out of playing sassy black servants, and was criticized by black actors in the 30’s and 40’s for continuing to take those roles. Her response, “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” did little to assuage the anger of the black community.
She suffered repeated indignities at the hands of white and the black Hollywood. White producers typecast her as the black Mammy from that point on. IMDB lists 94 roles for McDaniel. She played servants in 74 of them (over 78%). The Hollywood Reporter reveals that the NAACP disowned her for perpetuating negative stereotypes – and that her Oscar, which she left to Howard University,
…was deemed valueless by appraisers and later went missing from the school — and has remained so for more than 40 years.”
Even her final wish to be buried in Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery was denied because she was black. A cenotaph was finally erected there in October, 1999 to mark her passing (dedicated on the 47th anniversary of her death). She is buried instead in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, which was the first cemetery in LA open to all races and creeds.
One would think that some tribute, some mention of this great pioneering woman’s work, would be made at this year’s Oscars – when so much had been made of the need for greater diversity. When Chris Rock hosted and rightfully skewered the uber-white Hollywood establishment for its obstinate refusal to acknowledge such powerhouse performances as Will Smith’s, Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion, or Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson in Creed, or the film Straight Outta Compton, the most successful black film ever made (over $200M worldwide). Chris – along with the rest of the black Hollywood community – owes more than a token “thank you” to Hattie.
February 29, 2016 marks an extra day on our calendars. According to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, a person born on February 29 may be called a “leapling.” While Hattie wasn’t born on this date, she “birthed this baby” in 1940 – setting in motion a movement toward greater diversity in Oscar nominations. Apparently, it’s going to take many more “extra days” before we see her honored as she should be.
But for now, welcome, Hattie, with open arms. You are a Leapling of the first order! We wish you could have been around to see this year’s Academy Awards with its call for greater diversity. Even if they ignored you as one who helped start it all.
You deserved a lot better than you got.