Hattie McDaniel couldn’t attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind December 15, 1939 because Jim Crow laws forbade it.
In the South, ads depicting McDaniel and the other black actors were also forbidden. At the February 29, 1940 Oscars where she became the very first African-American to ever win, she reportedly sat at a segregated table at the back of the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” she said when she accepted the award.
Despite being a well-rounded entertainer whose skills were honed on the vaudeville circuit, McDaniel and many others like her were limited in servant roles on screens. So her historic win for playing a Mammy role was bittersweet. While McDaniel’s talent certainly warranted recognition, she was sadly prevented from showing that full range on screen.
Back then, as now, there were black people who objected to films like Gone with the Wind and the film was indeed picketed in several cities.
With Lupita Nyong’o poised to win that very same Best Supporting Actress Oscar in the 21st century for playing Patsey, a real-life enslaved woman who Solomon Northup chronicled in his real-life horror 12 Years a Slave, some ask have things really changed?
The answer is not clearly ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ With the exception of Whoopi Goldberg’s win for this very same Oscar in 1990, the others won theirs in the 2000s: Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls; Mo’Nique for Precious and Octavia Spencer for The Help. Halle Berry won the very first Best Actress Oscar awarded to a black woman the night of March 25, 2002 for her 2001 film Monster’s Ball. So Nyong’o would be just the seventh black woman to ever win an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress categories and the first-ever black female to win not born in the U.S.
Given that the last four Oscars for black actresses were awarded in the 21st century, there is indeed reason to be hopeful, especially considering that, in all of the 20th century, just two were awarded and this century is just getting started. Couple that with last year’s diverse film offerings created by, directed by or featuring African-American talent and there’s indeed reason to be hopeful. The influx of non-American-born talent like Idris Elba, Steve McQueen, Naomie Harris, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amma Asante, who directs Belle set for a May 2 release, is another encouraging sign.
Change hasn’t necessarily come as swiftly to those bestowing the honors. As in McDaniel’s day, Academy Award voters remain largely white and male. Instead, it’s the outside film world that is changing. And a lot of that boils down to the film industry’s increasing accessibility outside of the studio structure. Both Monster’s Ball and Precious, for which Lee Daniels was the driving force, were independent films that got bigger. The same goes for 12 Years a Slave.
This industry has never been particularly kind to black talent. Ironically (or perhaps, “cruel twist of fate” better describes it), The Birth of a Nation, which is fueled by white supremacist propaganda, is arguably one of film’s greatest technical achievements. So Hollywood, the Academy Awards especially, has a long history of celebrating technical and creative triumphs while completely sidestepping the accompanying ugliness apparent in many of them. Undoubtedly this is the reason it’s easier for this year’s broadcast to go all out for The Wizard of Oz, as Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Labrecque observes, and ignore its Oscar-decorated contemporary Gone With the Wind.
The truth just has a way of complicating things. 12 Years a Slave is a film adapted from a book based on the experiences of a man who was actually enslaved and, as a result, does not shy away from slavery’s inhumanity and brutality. Meanwhile, Gone with the Wind, also based on a book, as Labrecque writes, “celebrates the Southern plantation way of life as a harmonious ideal.” Not exactly a winning combo.
It’s a reality the Oscars, especially in its quest for ratings, is unwilling to confront right now. But even as one film makes a mockery of history and another tries to set the record straight, one thing should remain consistent: talent shines. Hattie McDaniel’s could not be denied and, hopefully, the same will ring true for Lupita Nyong’o.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.