Hattie McDaniel and Gone with the Wind

On Film / The Daily — Jun 10, 2020
Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel, born on this day 125 years ago, is believed to have been the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S. and was most definitely the first African American to win an Oscar. Her mother was a gospel singer and her father fought in the Civil War with the 122nd United States Colored Troops. Both were former slaves. After touring with minstrel shows and launching a recording career, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles in 1931, and within a few years, she was appearing in movies alongside the likes of Jean Harlow and James Stewart. The role for which she’s best known, of course, the one that scored her the Academy Award for best supporting actress, is Mammy, “Scarlett O’Hara’s slave and best counselor,” as Kat Eschner has put in Smithsonian Magazine, in Gone with the Wind (1939). Yesterday, HBO Max announced that it has removed the film from its library.

Before we turn to that decision and the article that sparked it, let’s spare another moment or two for Hattie McDaniel. She appeared in around three hundred movies, receiving credits for about a third of them, and as Eschner notes, she “played a maid at least seventy-four times.” Reviewing Carlton Jackson’s Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel for the New York Times in 1989, Al Young wrote: “When a friend criticized her for ‘playing so many servant parts, or “handkerchief heads” as they came to be called,’ McDaniel responded, ‘Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.’”

Last fall, Karina Longworth devoted an episode of her You Must Remember This podcast series on Song of the South (1946) to exploring the friction between McDaniel and the black community. And earlier this year, in the essay that accompanies our release of Show Boat (1936), Gary Giddins writes: “In portraying black romantic relationships, including marriage, in studio-era films, a degree of comedy was mandatory to eliminate any indication of eroticism . . . Even so, given Hollywood’s conventions, it is a joy to watch the superb performers [Paul] Robeson and McDaniel undermine typecasting with chemistry, eye contact, affection; of all the couples in the show, as in the novel, they are the most contented, suggesting an earthy bond that the others never achieve.”

To return to Gone with the Wind, the film’s perpetuation of “the most painful stereotypes of people of color” is just one of the objections John Ridley cites in his open call to HBO Max to remove the movie from its library. Writing for the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Ridley, the director and producer who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013), argues that Gone with the Wind is “a film that, as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was—a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell, and buy human beings.”

The reaction from HBO Max has been commendably swift. Gone with the Wind is gone. Its “racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible,” a company spokesperson tells Variety’s Jordan Moreau. So the film will eventually return “with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions,” says the spokesperson. At the same time, Gone with the Wind “will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable, and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”

Karina Longworth agrees. “I believe Hollywood’s history of racism should be openly discussed,” she writes on Twitter, adding that “when the industry tries to hide that history by de-circulating the products, they become fetish objects. And obviously, that ‘history’ is not over, it lingers. And the fetishism already exists: Trump invoked Gone with the Wind when Parasite won best picture.”

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