I’ve always enjoyed history, but I had a hard time enjoying history classes. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what the problem was. I love stories and enjoy learning about the things that people have gone through, but I had a hard time connecting the dates and events that we studied in class with the people in the stories.
Since March is Women’s History month, I’ve been focusing more on the important roles that women have played in Colorado history. Some of their names are very familiar to me, but others were new discoveries. Hattie McDaniel, who grew up in Ft. Collins and Denver, was both.
I knew that she was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, and that she won it for her performance in Gone With the Wind. The movie is one of my favorites, and I had seen it several times before I read Margaret Mitchell’s Pullitzer Prize-winning book. Quite frankly, when I read the book itself, I was stunned and disheartened. I thought the movie was beautiful and powerful, so I wasn’t prepared for the dark racism that I found in the book.
I later learned that the change in tone between the book and the movie didn’t happen by accident. Racial slurs and some of the inaccuracies of the book did not become part of the movie – especially those that supported the formation of the Klu Klux Klan and the lynchings that were taking place at that time.
Still, there were complaints about the movie. Some complained that it romanticized slavery, while others felt that Hattie’s portrayal of Mammie, Scarlett O’Hara’s personal servant, was actually empowering. She scolds Scarlett and scoffs at Rhett, and by the end of the movie proves to be the strongest of the three.
Hattie’s parents were born slaves, and she sometimes spoke of the stories she heard about life on the plantation. Some critics felt that the roles she played fed racial stereotypes while others felt that her performances challenged those stereotypes.
Gone With the Wind premiered at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. As the date for the premier drew close, Hattie learned that she would not be able to attend, she would be excluded from the souvenir programs, and banned from appearing in advertisements in the South because of the Jim Crowe Segregation laws.
Hattie was able to attend the Hollywood premier, and director David O. Selznick insisted that her picture be featured prominently in that program.
On the night she received her Academy Award, Hattie and her escort were seated at a segregated table.