On February 29, 1940, African-American actress, singer, and entertainer Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her portrayal as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Though 1939 also saw the premieres of movies like The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, GWTW earned thirteen nominations and eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress accolade. Given the racism and discrimination rampant in the United States in the 1940s, the decision to award the Supporting Actress to an African-American woman seemed to be a tremendous step forward.
It also wasn’t.
Born in 1893, Hattie McDaniel began performing when she was in high school as part of a troupe called The Mighty Minstrels. By the time she was in her 20s, she was performing on the radio, the first African-American woman to do so. The performing life did not pay well, and McDaniel often worked as domestic help to make ends meet. After moving to Los Angeles, she was cast as an extra in a Hollywood musical. After earning her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card, McDaniel went on to small roles in I’m No Angel, The Little Colonel, Judge Priest, and Show Boat. She worked with and became friends with many of the major stars of the day, including Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland. Her relationships with the latter two helped her win the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind.
McDaniel’s acting ability was never in doubt. Mammy was the soul of Margaret Mitchell’s novel and of the film adaptation. Reception to the film (and its actors) demonstrates the black soul of American racism, however. None of the African-American actors were able to attend the film’s opening night at Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater. Jim Crow also showed up at the Oscar ceremony the following year. GWTW director David O. Selznick had to petition for McDaniel to be able to attend the ceremony at the Ambassador Hotel. She and her date ended up sitting at a table at the back of the room separate from her GWTW costars. It was easier to award McDaniel one of the top acting awards in the nation than to find a place for her in American society as an African American woman. She could be a star, but not an equal.
McDaniel also faced censure from the African-American community, who saw GWTW and the character of Mammy as romanticizing the Old South and slavery. They criticized her for taking roles as slaves and servants, saying she was preserving the stereotypes that fueled discrimination against black Americans. McDaniel disagreed, arguing African-American women did not have the luxury of choosing their roles if they wanted to continue to work (and to eat). “The only choice permitted us is either to be servants for $7 a week or to portray them for $700 a week,” she said. McDaniel believed “a woman’s gifts will make room for her,” but we cannot forget for a moment that a woman is rarely in control of the room’s location or its conditions.
Almost eighty years later, the Academy Awards, and the United States, struggles with diversity. The 2015 Awards earned the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Caucasian actors for all twenty major acting awards, the first occurrence since 1998. American society is diverse, but depicting and honoring that diversity continues to be difficult. It is hard to believe we can still celebrate the “first black,” “first Asian,” “first Hispanic,” “first LGBTQ,” “first woman” (the list goes on and on) anything in the year 2018, but that is our reality and our society.
Tonight’s 90th Academy Awards is not without its own firsts: the first female cinematography nominee (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound); nominations for African-American director/comedian/actor Jordan Peele (Get Out) and for female director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); and of course, the first Oscars since Harvey Weinstein was dethroned by industry leaders finally taking the sexual assault and abuse allegations against him seriously. 2018 seems to be the year where Hollywood is at least ready to listen to disenfranchised voices, but that does not mean the path ahead is certain. Some have criticized the film Call Me By Your Name, the story of a young man’s summer affair with his father’s research assistant, as promoting sexual promiscuity and underage sexual relations. This is especially interesting during a cinematic season that also saw the opening of Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in a trilogy that regularly substitutes softcore pornography for plot and character development. Others criticize Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water for not going far enough in its development of its disabled characters, namely the protagonist, Elisa. The Oscars, like society itself, is perpetually caught in a game of one step forward, one step back, not far enough—wait, too far. It is only by stretching boundaries that we will ever arrive at a new, more equitable normal.
McDaniel said “we respect sincerity in our friends and acquaintances, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it.” Perhaps the best way forward is to keep reminding Hollywood, and other sources of American power, that it will only get what it pays for. We must also remember that we, the consumers, get what we pay for. Hollywood films what sells. If we continue to demand film art that is inclusive and also put our money where we say our priorities lie, #OscarsSoWhite can become part of history, not a recurring pattern. Race and gender shape art, but do not and cannot determine its worth. Perhaps we must also keep reminding them we have the receipts.
 See “What ‘The Shape of Water’ Gets Wrong About Disability,” at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-379-populism-in-italy-s-elections-greenland-s-ice-melt-the-shape-of-water-ode-to-cds-and-more-1.4555633/what-the-shape-of-water-gets-wrong-about-disability-1.4555657.