The Black Actor’s Dilemma

  Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood

By Jill Watts

New York: Amistad, 2005, 368 pp., $27.95, hardcover

 

Reviewed by Samantha Barbas

 

For decades, the silver screen was lily white. Until the late twentieth century, African Americans appeared rarely in Hollywood films – and then, only in gross caricature, as subservient maids, farcical entertainers, and slow-witted butlers. Jill Watts documents early Hollywood’s insidious, institutionalized racism in her new biography of Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind. Skillfully, Watts paints a complex portrait of a woman who became as well-known for her formidable talents as for the controversies she raised. As one of only a few successful, highly paid black actresses in early Hollywood, McDaniel, who earned over one hundred screen credits, was seen by many as a pathbreaking pioneer. But her willingness to portray racist stereotypes led some to cast her as a traitor.

Watts details McDaniel’s struggle to win screen roles, her cruel encounters with prejudice both in and out of Hollywood, and her ongoing, conflicted relationship with the progressive black activist community. Watts is both sympathetic and honest: we pity McDaniel and her unenviable position, but at the same time, see how her intense careerism drove her often to accommodate rather than challenge film industry racism. For McDaniel, as for many other black performers in Hollywood, it was a matter of survival.

By the time she got to Hollywood in the 1930s, McDaniel, born in 1893, knew a lot about survival. McDaniel’s father, Henry, a former slave, had fought in the Union Army in the Civil War and suffered debilitating injuries. As a child, McDaniel watched her father struggle, in vain, to find steady work and obtain a veterans’ pension that was denied to him on blatantly racist grounds. Following in the footsteps of her older brothers, who saw stage work as a ticket out of poverty, at the age of eight McDaniel began performing as an actress and a singer. By the time she was twenty, she was a popular local entertainer in her hometown of Denver.

Like many early film actors, McDaniel began her career in vaudeville theater. McDaniel’s stage characters were bold and irreverent; she inflected her roles with sassy rebellion and often, explicit social critique. In her early career she appeared in an all-female minstrel show in which she delivered a brash, exaggerated spoof of the plantation “mammy” caricature. By the 1920s, she was touring the country on a black vaudeville circuit, singing racy blues songs loaded with sexual innuendo. Through these performances, Watts argues, McDaniel “countered notions of feminine weakness” and developed “a powerful, black feminist stage presence.” Living in a sexist and racist culture that in many ways rendered her powerless, McDaniel found strength through her acting and music.

When the Depression hit, and stage work dried up, McDaniel moved to Hollywood, where her brother Sam had made a successful career in radio and film. Like most black movie performers, she signed up with Charles Butler’s Cinema Exchange, a talent agency. Film studios cast both black and white actors by type; heavy-set and dark-skinned, McDaniel was typed as a servant, maid, or “mammy.” She learned quickly that when it came to race, Hollywood was no better than the rest of America. Black actors, given only demeaning, minor roles, were included in films mostly for comic relief. There were no black directors or producers, and at many studios, facilities were segregated. Those who tried to buck the system paid with their careers.

In 1932, McDaniel won her first major screen role, playing Marlene Dietrich’s maid in Blonde Venus. In this part, as in her subsequent appearances, McDaniel was blunt and brash. Far from meek and subservient, her maids deliver their lines with gruff cynicism. Sometimes the sass was even scripted into the part. Playing a maid named Hattie in the 1938 film Carefree, McDaniel is asked by a white character, Cora: “Hattie, have you ever been married?”

“No, ma’am,” Hattie replies. “But I’ve been engaged.”

“Oh, just as good,” says Cora.

“No ma’am,” Hattie responds. “It’s a lot better.”

Watts sees McDaniel’s wit and assertiveness as her attempt to subvert stereotypes of black docility and simple-mindedness. But many saw the actress less as a rebel than as a sellout. By 1937, several African American civil rights groups, including the NAACP, (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), had begun an attack both on the film studios and on the black actors who played what they saw as demeaning roles. The controversy came to a head following the release of Gone With The Wind. Though the performance won McDaniel the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, she was criticized for her depiction of Scarlett O’Hara’s devoted slave, Mammy. In front of theaters, protesters carried signs reading “Gone With the Wind Hangs the Free Negro.” Wrote one black newspaper, “Hattie McDaniel must go.”

To McDaniel’s generation, the mere presence of blacks in Hollywood film was an important achievement. But to a younger generation of African Americans, mere representation was not enough—they called for respectful, accurate characterization, a demand that threatened the careers of McDaniel and others who played racist “types.” An NAACP campaign during World War II pressured the studios to present more dignified black characters, but this effort, combined with wartime cutbacks, ultimately put McDaniel out of work. With film roles scarce, she turned to radio. In the fall of 1947, CBS hired her to play a maid in its popular radio show Beulah, a part which eventually landed her a role on a spinoff television program. McDaniel’s presence boosted the show’s popularity—over ten million listeners tuned in weekl—and sold sponsor Procter and Gamble’s Dreft laundry soap, which McDaniel hawked in radio commercials. 

McDaniel died in 1952, just as the civil rights movement was gaining steam. Even after her passing, she remained controversial. In a fascinating (and too short) discussion of McDaniel’s legacy, Watts tells us that in the 1960s and 70s, as black power was at its peak, many African Americans viewed McDaniel’s characters, with their rolling eyes and wide smiles, with horror and shame. Yet others, particularly in recent years, have tried to redeem McDaniel, praising her dogged willingness to persist in her career and the subtle critique of white racism that came through in her strong, sarcastic screen presence. Watts herself is clearly in the latter camp, though she does not apologize for her subject. She exposes McDaniel’s willing, even eager compliance with the studios’ racist expectations. In one notable example, McDaniel, boasting of her talents as a cook, plied “film bosses with home baked goodies” and contributed recipes for fried chicken to a fan magazine publicity article on Mammy’s cooking tips. In the 1940s she fought a restrictive covenant that prohibited nonwhites from owning property in her Los Angeles neighborhood. But when it came to her career, she was less willing to challenge the status quo.

Watts’ research is extensive, her writing clear and accessible, and her book a thorough, engaging, intelligent piece of historical scholarship. Watts is a master at context; with just the right amount of detail, she immerses us in McDaniel’s worlds: the hard-edged, hardworking troupe of black vaudevillians that shaped McDaniel into a witty performer; the black Hollywood community, charged with frustration and ambition; the good-natured camaraderie on film sets that sometimes crossed racial lines. We see a multifaceted woman: an eminently talented actress and performer; a feisty, often bitter subject of attack and controversy; and a survivor who worked her way up from poverty and boasted of her success. She’d rather play a maid than be one, she often quipped. Regrettably, we see less of the private McDaniel, an omission that may have to do with the nature of Watts’ sources (film studios’ archival records and newspaper clippings). We learn that McDaniel was a spiritual woman who followed the teachings of Norman Vincent Peale and Father Divine; she had a few failed marriages and, Watts implies, perhaps a few steamy romantic affairs.  Beyond that, we know relatively little about her inner life – her beliefs and motivations, her philosophy of race. How did she feel about what her contemporary, black performer Clarence Muse, described as “the dilemma of the Negro actor,” torn between her desire for artistic expression and the demands of the white entertainment industry?

Today we celebrate the Hollywood successes of Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and Spike Lee. Watts reminds us, importantly, of the sacrifices and struggles upon which these modern careers were built. “If the measure of an artist is in the ability to promote feelings and emotions” and to “challenge audiences to think and react,” Watts writes, given the debates she stirred, McDaniel was at the top of her profession. Indeed, she may have been one of the most important performers of her time.

 

Samantha Barbas is the author of The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons.

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