Op-Ed: I don’t like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I hate to see Hattie McDaniel canceled
By popular demand, monuments to the Confederacy have been tumbling down. Since 2015, around 110 statues have been removed, with roughly another 1700 to go.
The worldwide protest of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer has sped the pace. From Mobile, Ala., to Antwerp, Belgium, symbols of white supremacy are taking a nosedive. And I couldn’t be more thrilled. Until now.
WarnerMedia has removed“Gone With the Wind” from its new streaming platform, HBO Max. AFI ranked the film No. 6 among the 100 Best Movies of All Time. The 1939 David O. Selznick-produced film not only won a bunch of Oscars, it also led to the first Academy Award for an African American actor, Hattie McDaniel. She played Mammy, a stereotypical maid role common to her era.
The shelving of “GWTW” at the urging of another Academy Award winner, director and screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), is happening for good reason: “It doesn’t just ‘fall short’ with regard to representation,” he pointed out in an op-ed in this newspaper. “When it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, [“Gone With the Wind”] pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”
I’ve sat through “GWTW” exactly once as research for a historical novel in which McDaniel is a character. I don’t like the film either. At the same time, it is sad to see the actress get canceled along with the movie. She endured so many trials to stand, briefly, in the spotlight.
Shortly after winning her Academy Award in 1940, McDaniel found herself under attack: The head of the NAACP, Walter Francis White, came after her and the roles she and her contemporaries played. Already fighting segregation in education, housing and the military, he used his connections as a prominent civil rights leader to try to pressure Hollywood to portray Blacks in all kinds of roles, not just menial ones.
White helped negotiate Lena Horne’s seven-picture deal with MGM in 1942. His bent was toward actors like the newcomer whom he considered more attractive and sophisticated than McDaniel. And yet the studios tended to ignored Horne’s acting ability and focus on her singing. Portraying Blacks mainly as the entertainment in a story is itself stereotyping. When Horne wasn’t in musicals such as “Stormy Weather” or “Cabin in the Sky,” she was typically filmed singing off to the side of the action, making it easier to cut her scenes in the South.
White, who was based in New York, continued to visit Los Angeles to rub elbows with producers, and discourage them from making more films with the servile roles McDaniel played. The actress knew it was happening. One of her biographers said she reacted as if White were trying to “grab the bread right out of her mouth.”
McDaniel bravely chose to pursue her passion in a time when the default for Black women was domestic work. She grew up the youngest of 13 in a talented family. Her father traveled with her brothers in an act called Henry McDaniel and Sons. She and her siblings produced shows for Denver’s Black community. But her family was poor and struggled to get by.
Hattie went on to work as a featured act on the Pantages Circuit, and to write and record blues music in Chicago but then lost two major gigs to the Depression. She viewed Hollywood as her last resort. Joining three siblings in L.A., she found work in one of the few industries still prospering: the motion pictures. She booked small parts in the early 1930s, won the role of Queenie in “Show Boat” (1936), and then the pinnacle came when she landed “Gone with the Wind.”
It’s not a mystery why, in this racially charged moment, people would gather at the base of Hollywood’s multi-Oscar-winning, highest-grossing Confederate statue eager to yank it from its perch. But when I think of “Gone With the Wind,” I also think of all the years McDaniel invested in becoming an artist on her own terms. All the sacrifices. All the hope.
An HBO Max representative has said the film is not gone for good, that it will come back with “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those [stereotypical] depictions.” That sounds fair enough, although the portrayal of Black womanhood in the movie causes me pain. So I’m Team Hattie, not Team “GWTW.”
I especially love how, in the weeks after the film was released, McDaniel marched into Selznick’s office, showed him the good notices for her performance and asked, if he agreed with them, to put her name in the running for the best supporting actress Oscar.
That gutsy, well-timed move, and the results, are why she has been immortalized, and why I find her to be such a compelling figure. Her commitment to live as an artist, come what may, will always inspire me.
Writer and filmmaker Pamela K. Johnson is finishing her first novel, Hattie and Walter.” (@pamelasez)
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