Sistah’s In Hollywood

As for those grapefruit and buttermilk diets, I’ll take roast chicken and dumplings

-Hattie McDaniels

Being in the limelight in Hollywood is the most amazing experience for a lot of people. It’s like sitting on cloud nine. There are many who excel in the tough world of Hollywood. For others, it literally becomes the death of them. All that fame and notoriety comes with a price. Watching your favorite actor or actress play a character in a movie looks pretty easy. It looks so easy, for some, it’s inspiring. What they don’t tell you is all of the rejection they face before they actually make it to the big screen. Making it big in Hollywood is not all glitter’s and glam. Some people face so much rejection that it kills them, literally. There’s all kind of reasons for rejection behind the big screen. Whether you’re too skinny, too fat, too dark, or just plain unwanted, rejection is a hard fact of life in Hollywood, especially for people of color.

During slavery and segregation, people of color starring in films were almost unheard of. Whether you were male of female, if you weren’t white, playing on the big screen was pretty much out of the question. Every now and then you may see a man or woman of color on the big screen, but their roles were very minuscule. They were either an extra or played roles such as a kitchen worker, maid, or a gardener. Their roles were never long enough to get public notoriety. As we all know, with hard work comes great success, and that’s just what Hattie McDaniel set out to prove. The first African-American woman to win an Oscar for her role in ‘Gone With the Wind.’

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McDaniel was born in 1893 in Wichita, Kansas. She was one of 13 children from her father who was a minister and her mother who was a domestic worker. From an early age, she tapped into her flair of singing, performing in her church and signing various bouts around the house. In 1909, after professionally mastering her skill of singing and dancing, she dropped out of high school and pursued a full-fledged career with her brothers. They became known as the Mighty Minstrels. She married the pianist in the group and branched out to start her own all women’s minstrel group. By the 1920’s McDaniel had made a name for herself. She was touring all over and was invited to be on Denver’s KOA radio show. She became the first African-American woman in radio.

After struggling to make ends meet doing radio, she was convinced by her brother and sister to move to Los Angeles where her career as an actress began. Before landing any major movie or screen roles, she started out on her brother’s radio show KNX and became a hit. She was dubbed ‘Hi-Hat Hattie.’ It wasn’t until 1932, that she landed her first screen role as a maid in The Golden West. This would be the start of a long, yet rewarding career in television. As I stated earlier, women and men of color were not in high demand back in the 1930’s for Hollywood roles, so she still had to take up odd jobs here and there just to make ends meet. That didn’t stop her, she continued to push through until she landed another role performing a duet with Will Rogers in 1934’s  Judge Priest. McDaniel was finally making headway. She worked with other big names such as Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, and Irene Dunne.

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By this time, McDaniel was making history for all the African-American women around the world who aspired to be on film. She was becoming a hot commodity in the Hollywood community. Everyone loved her, and her voice was phenomenal. She was pursued by many, but it wasn’t until 1939 that her life changed forever. She was cast as Mammy, the house servant of Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivian Leigh) in the movie Gone with the Wind. How awesome is it to have your face all over Hollywood as one of the most successful African-American women ever to grace the television set. Pretty awesome, right? Now imagine not being able to see your own movie. That’s just what happen to McDaniel. When it was time for the movie to premier in theaters, she was barred from seeing her own movie. She along with several other African-American’s were barred from seeing the movie. Keep in mind it’s still the 1930s so segregation and Jim Crow laws were in full effect. It wouldn’t be until the following year that she’d get the recognition she’d work so hard for.

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In 1940, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American woman to win an Oscar. Pretty awesome, right. Well, remember earlier in the article when I said that all that glitter’s and glam came with a price? As her career started to flourish, McDaniel received harsh criticism from the troops and members of the post-war community for the roles she was playing. Playing roles of servants and slaves did not sit too well with many in the black community. They believed it portrayed people of color in a negative light and was way too stereotypical. The president of the NAACP (National Association Advancement for Colored People) pleaded with Hollywood filmmakers to create more realistic roles for people of color. They believed that creating roles that were more than just slaves and servants, showed the true intellect and education of people of color. McDaniel was not swayed by such backlash. She defended her roles and suggested that playing the role of  Mammy did just that. In fact, she had a valid point. It proved that she was more than a slave or a servant. She was a movie star. Just because she played such roles didn’t make her that in real life. She surpassed all obstacles and people that became a roadblock to her success.

I did my best, and God did the rest

-Hattie McDaniel

As the fight to stop such roles began to progress, McDaniel’s appearance on the big screen was starting to diminish. People in the black community were urging filmmakers to do away with such roles. As the roles became less and less popular, McDaniel returned to radio. Seven years after winning an Oscar, she landed a role on CBS radio as another maid. She convinced the NAACP to let her use her talents to break racial stereotypes and be more than what she said they were. It wouldn’t be until 1951, that she’d be seen on television again. She brought her radio character to life on the big screen. Unfortunately, she suffered a heart attack and her acting role was short lived. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and succumbed to the disease in 1952.

The life and career of Hattie McDaniel paved the way for many men and women of color, especially women. Women were always regarded to as property, so we were forced to prove our worth in the industry. Women were laughed at and shunned away as we were thought to be housemaids, nothing more nothing less. Women of color, on the other hand, weren’t even recognized as human. McDaniel broke the barriers down for all of that. She proved that women of color can be more than just servants and slaves. We can be whomever or whatever we put our minds to. With hard work, anything is possible. She received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1975 was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

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