In its 94-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded an Oscar, one of the industry’s most coveted acting awards, to just 10 black women. This year, actress Angela Bassett could become the 11th name on that short list, continuing a legacy she began with pioneering artist and Hollywood legend Hattie McDaniel in 1940.
Bassett is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, the same category McDaniel won for her role in the 1939 adaptation of Gone With the Wind. McDaniel’s story has become synonymous with a long and complicated battle in Hollywood for equal consideration and due respect for the careers of black entertainers. It’s a quest that represents a reality yet to be seen, often overlooked for victorious, hope-inspiring moments like McDaniel’s Oscar win.
10 Memorable Oscars Moments That Aren’t The Slap
But McDaniel’s legacy is much bigger than just one line in the annals of Oscar history, with echoes of his artistic ethos found in the creation of non-Academy awards shows, the 2015 #OscarsTanBlanco(Opens in a new tab) the campaign on social networks and the clamor for recognition of the casts and the various human stories in the arts. In fact, the one-dimensional depiction of McDaniel as merely a historic Oscar winner is a symptom of the problem itself, explained Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-great-nephew and guardian of his estate.
“The gift that Hattie gave me in researching her and talking to people about her is that she was more than just the Oscar,” he said.
Documenting this history has been a multigenerational goal of the McDaniel family, a baton passed to Goff from his own father. Beyond the award, says the 59-year-old, McDaniel left everlasting fingerprints on every part of Hollywood she touched.
Something that doesn’t hold up as well as his recognition from the Academy is the importance of the entire McDaniel family. If we were to take a broader look at McDaniel’s history, Goff says, it would be a Hollywood name uttered at the same time as the Barrymores.
McDaniel was born into a wealth of creativity. She started out as a childhood vaudeville performer who took the stage alongside several of her 13 older siblings, including Goff’s great-grandmother, Etta. The family wasn’t limited to acting either: McDaniel wrote and performed music, did radio shows and, to Goff’s surprise, even played drums. In her own words, she “played everything but the harp”.
In many ways, the family legacy is also one of unspoken activism, initiated by the involvement of McDaniel’s father, who was born into slavery, in the Union Civil War effort, and continued in the defiant early performances of her and his brothers, at the turn of the century, McDaniel was even acting in “white face”,(Opens in a new tab) a radical choice to subvert the popularity of white-led minstrel shows. McDaniel’s presence as a Hollywood mentor, charitable benefactor and community builder lasted long after her historic Academy win, which Goff explained she did little to overcome systemic racism at the time.
Credit: CBS/Getty Images
After the Oscars, McDaniel still suffered injustice at the hands of the industry and the keepers of history. At 47, his performance as gone With the WindThe domestic servant of (now frequently mentioned in criticism of the larger “Mammy” cartoon(Opens in a new tab)) received criticism from organizations such as the NAACP for promoting black stereotypes. Nationally, many members of the The black community backed down against his acting choices.(Opens in a new tab) in debates over the definition of “racial progress.”
It was a limited creative reality that most black actors had to face at the time, Goff said, but also a role to which he was personally attached, having trained in domestic service alongside his own mother. Other historians have quoted McDaniel explaining that his interpretation of the role of him was actually a nod to the likes of Sojourner Truth(Opens in a new tab).
“Most black performers played a subservient type of character. But Hattie didn’t come from that kind of space. If you look at her performances, she was confrontational. She’d look at what was written on the page and go, ‘This is what I’m going with. I’m working. Let me put my personality in there,'” Goff said. “It was either that or give in to what actors normally did, and she didn’t feel like that was going to advance the progress of black artists.”
A refrain shared by modern artists and activists alike, the awards did not change McDaniel’s lived reality of being a black woman in the United States. She was retaliated against by her white neighbors after buying her own home, and she was later denied her wish to be buried in the famous Hollywood cemetery(Opens in a new tab). And while her Oscar plaque was donated posthumously to Howard University, as she had requested, it is now supposedly missing(Opens in a new tab). Goff said the Academy told him just a few years ago that he would be replaced, but that has yet to materialize.
Credit: Getty Images
Despite living in a country that “has always regarded us as subhuman,” as Goff wrote earlier in the San Diego Grandstand(Opens in a new tab)it’s McDaniel’s poise as he perseveres what needs to be announced, he told Mashable.
“This is what impresses me about Hattie. It’s not the Oscars. It’s not the fact that she succeeded in Hollywood despite the obstacles. What impresses me about Hattie is that while all this was going on… she’s being compassionate and kind. Imagine all these doors being slammed in your face and you still have this humanity. That’s courage.”
That’s not to say that McDaniel’s victory shouldn’t continue to be talked about at a time when Black communities still have to fight for representation, recognition and basic rights. This story serves more as a reminder to the movie industry in general, as the Academy Awards are still on. predominantly white and male(Opens in a new tab), despite some improvements. “She had a subtle impact, step by step, so that when the next person came along in the next generation, she might even be easier for them,” Goff said.
Banned from attending the world premiere of his own film, McDaniel broke barriers just by attending the 12th Academy Awards, held at the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub at The Ambassador Hotel.(Opens in a new tab). He entered the ceremony to applause from reformers and activists, and in opposition to industry elites, before breaking precedent by accepting the first Oscar awarded to a black actor.
“I sincerely hope to always be a credit to my race and to the film industry,” McDaniel said in his acceptance speech. “My heart is too full to tell you how I feel.”
But it would be 50 years before another black woman was honored with an Academy Award, this time recognizing Whoopi Goldberg for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1990 film. Ghost. At the 2002 Oscars ceremony, Halle Berry made her own history as the first black woman to win the coveted Best Actress award, for her role in 2001. the monster ball.
Goldberg holds an Academy Award for her performance in ‘Ghost’ in 1990.
Credit: John Barr/Link/Getty Images
Berry displays his landmark award for his performance in 2001 in ‘Monster’s Ball.’
Credit: Getty Images
In all, only 10 black women have won an Oscar, a list so short it’s easily recitable: Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress, dream girls), Mo’Nique (Best Supporting Actress, Precious), Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress, Aid)Lupita Nyong’o (Best Supporting Actress, 12 years a slave), Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, fences), Regina King (Best Supporting Actress, If Beale Street could talk), and Ariana DeBose (Best Supporting Actress, West Side Story), as well as McDaniel, Goldberg and Berry. Berry is the only winner in the Best Actress category.
“[Hattie] It makes me think of all women,” Goff said. “Don’t all women do a million things but only get credit for two or three? You’re crushing it all the time, and you’re not getting your fair share of recognition. That’s what happened Hattie. That’s what happened to my mom.”
The fact that seven of the 10 Oscars awarded to black women have been in the last 20 years can be cause for optimism, though there are contemporary examples of the continued burden placed on black artists to make difficult creative decisions like the ones McDaniels faced. decades ago. In 2011, Spencer opened up about the fear of being typecast.(Opens in a new tab) as a maid for her award-winning role as Minny in Aid. Bassett, now nominated for her role as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverpreviously shared that she turned down the role that earned Halle Berry her Best Actress Oscar, reportedly calling the role “a stereotype about black women and sexuality.”(Opens in a new tab)
As the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar for a role within the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for a film seen by many as emblematic of black pride and excellence.(Opens in a new tab), Bassett’s assent could represent the hope of a turn toward overdue recognition. But, as TV and academia audiences await the 2023 Best Supporting Actress results, Bassett, who has only been nominated twice in her four-decade career, may well remain on a long list of the least. recognized.
“It’s like a big machine that has all this power,” Goff said. “You’re trying to get on and hitch a ride, but at the same time you’re trying to change gears, change the direction you’re going. That’s a really hard thing to do.” Despite the expanded access now being given to various creatives in the film industry, he said, if the same people are running the machine, they won’t want it taken away from them.
Ultimately though, the machine has as much to lose by retaining acclaim as the performers themselves. “I think you reap what you sow,” Goff said. “If a segment of the population feels unappreciated, and the industry is going through what it’s going through right now, can it ever rebuild?
“What you don’t want is a body of artists, who have a lot to give, who don’t care anymore. Because then you’re going to lose a lot of amazing stories.”