Thinking About Hattie McDaniel

I am not too surprised that my students are enjoying Gone With the Wind.  The discussions have been pretty good thus far.  For Monday they must bring in a newspaper article about the movie and share it with the rest of the group.  I am hoping that they come in with articles from different decades so we get a sense of how the movie was received/interpreted at different times.  Today I began the class by playing Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress in 1939.  I asked my students to think about the sharp contrast between the woman who accepted the award and the character she plays in the movie.  There is something very sad and disturbing about this scene once we acknowledge that McDaniel was given an award for her ability to depict a character that was the product of a racist society – one that satisfied the needs of white America.  I want to know what it was like for Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors to have to depict these characters on film.  To what extent were they aware of the racist stereotypes that lay behind these characters?  Are McDaniel’s tears in her acceptance speech any indication of this realization.  I am so curious about these and other question that I decided to purchase a biography about her.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

9 comments… add one
  • msimons Jan 12, 2010 @ 18:44

    Mammy is my favorite person in the Movie. She reminded me of the AA ladies in my town who watched out for all of us young'ens and had lots of great wisdom and were fine cooks.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 12, 2010 @ 18:47

      I sometimes wonder what those women could have accomplished with their lives had they lived in a more equitable society.

      • msimons Jan 12, 2010 @ 18:59

        I do too.

  • markrcheathem Jan 8, 2010 @ 22:07

    I highly recommend reading Micki McElya's Clinging to Mammy to understand the mammy figure that permeated American pop culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I am considering its use in a U.S. survey course next year.) In addition to GWTW, I can think of several episodes of the Three Stooges and Tom & Jerry that used “mammy” stereotypes.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2010 @ 22:23

      I actually read the book when it was first published. I also highly recommend it.

  • robwick Jan 8, 2010 @ 13:23

    I've often looked at this scene and the other speeches made (there is a documentary on the making of the movie which is included in the box set that came out last year) and they have always looked to me like they were re-filmed and not presented “live”. Since there was no television then, and those were done for newsreels, I wonder how “real” it was. I don't mean to take away from McDaniel's emotion on receiving the award, but it might be interesting to know if the acceptance speeches were filmed after the ceremony or done then.


  • JeffryB Jan 8, 2010 @ 4:11

    The more I see the movie, the more I would disagree that the character of Mammy is but a one-dimensional stereotype, and I think her Oscar is a somewhat sly recognition of that by “liberal” Hollywood. Within the constraints of the overall theme, her character is three-dimensional, discerning and intelligent, and often she shows more common sense than Scarlett or other members of the O'Hara family. There's a great scene near the end of the movie (not sure if it's in the book) where Scarlett tells Rhett not to do something, saying it will shock the community, and Rhett answers that the only two people whose good opinion he desires are Melanie and Mammy. That's not just a throw-away line – he means it, as other scenes demonstrate. Undoubtedly, her behavior generally fits into the loyal slave/freedman meme, but I think she earned her Oscar by a performance of – for the time – unusual warmth and depth. Butterfly McQueen, not so much.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 8, 2010 @ 17:18

      I agree with you to a certain extent. Mammy is incredibly perceptive at times, especially in those early scenes involving Scarlett's intentions re: Wilkes.

  • Corey Meyer Jan 8, 2010 @ 2:57

    Makes me think of how far movie making has come in the years between GWTW and Denzel Washington's win for best supporting actor for Glory or Hallie Berry's Best Actress win a few years ago. I suppose Hattie would be very proud.

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