Hattie McDaniel and Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind, the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel – which, to say the least, valorises the antebellum South – was always controversial. When producer David O Selznick announced the production, his decision was widely condemned by civil-rights organisations such as the NAACP.

African-American actors who took roles in the film were also criticised – and in particular, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, maid, confidante and factotum to the film’s central character Scarlett O’Hara and her family.

McDaniel, born 10 June 1893, wasn’t a shoo-in for the part. But her father was both a former slave and a civil-war veteran, and after Selznick saw her screen test, he cancelled all other auditions.

McDaniel unquestionably transcends the role. It was, she said, “An opportunity to glorify Negro womanhood… The brave efficient type of womanhood which… has built our race, paid for our elaborate houses of worship, and sustained our business, charitable and improvement organisations.” Whether it is possible for that role to transcend the society it inhabits is a harder question. Nevertheless, the quality of her performance was immediately evident – even on set. It won her the first acting Oscar awarded to an African-American. It would be 50 years until a black woman won another.

This piece first appeared in the June 2021 Months Past column in History Today.

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