Bassett is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, the same category in which McDaniel won for her role in the 1939 adaptation of Gone with the Wind. McDaniel’s story has become synonymous with a long, complicated battle in Hollywood for equitable consideration and proper respect for the careers of Black performers. It’s a pursuit that represents a reality yet to be seen, often glossed over by the victorious, hope-inspiring moments, like McDaniel’s Oscar win.
But McDaniel’s legacy is much bigger than just a line in the annals of Oscar history, with echoes of her artistic ethos found in the creation of non-Academy award shows, the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite(Opens in a new tab) social media campaign, and the clamor for recognition of ensemble casts and diverse, human stories in the arts. In fact, the one-dimensional depiction of McDaniel as merely a historic Oscar winner is a symptom of the problem itself, explained Kevin John Goff, McDaniel’s great-grandnephew and the keeper of her estate.
“The gift that Hattie gave me in researching her and talking to people about her is that she was more than just the Oscar,” he said.
Documenting this history has been a multi-generational goal of the McDaniel family, a baton passed to Goff from his own father. Beyond the award, the 59-year-old says, McDaniel placed everlasting fingerprints on every part of Hollywood she touched.
Something that isn’t preserved nearly as well as her Academy recognition is the significance of the entire McDaniel family. If we were to take a more broad look at the McDaniel story, says Goff, it would be a Hollywood name uttered in the same breath as the Barrymores’.
McDaniel was born into a wealth of creativity. She began as a childhood Vaudeville performer who took to the stage alongside several of her 13 older siblings, including Goff’s great-grandmother Etta. The family wasn’t limited to acting, either — McDaniel wrote and performed music, she did radio shows, and, to the surprise of Goff, she even played the drums. In her own words, she “played everything but the harp.”
In many ways, the family legacy is also one of unspoken activism, started by the participation of McDaniel’s father, who was born into slavery, in the Union’s Civil War effort, and continued in the defiant early performances of her and her siblings — at the turn of the century, McDaniel was even performing in “whiteface,”(Opens in a new tab) a radical choice to subvert the popularity of white-led minstrel shows. McDaniel’s presence as a Hollywood mentor, a charitable benefactor, and a community builder lasted long after her historic Academy win, which Goff explained did little to overcome systemic racism at the time.
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Post-Oscars, McDaniel still suffered injustices at the hands of the industry and history-keepers. At 47 years old, her performance as Gone With the Wind‘s domestic servant (now frequently referred to in critiques of the broader “Mammy” caricature(Opens in a new tab)) received criticism from organizations like the NAACP for promoting Black stereotypes. Nationwide, many members of the Black community recoiled against her acting choices(Opens in a new tab) in debates on the definition of “racial progress.”
It was a limited creative reality that most Black actors had to face at the time, Goff said, but also a role that she had personal attachment to, as she had trained in domestic service alongside her own mother. Other historians have quoted McDaniel as explaining her take on the role was actually a nod to the likes of Sojourner Truth(Opens in a new tab).
“Most Black performers did play a subservient type of character. But Hattie didn’t come from that kind of space. If you look at her performances, she was confrontational. She would see what was on the written page and say, ‘This is what I’m working with. Let me put my personality in there,'” Goff said. “It was either that or caving in to what actors did normally, and she didn’t feel like that was going to advance progress for Black performers.”
A refrain shared by modern performers and activists alike, awards didn’t change McDaniel’s lived reality of being a Black woman in the United States. She was retaliated against by her white neighbors after purchasing her own home, and was later denied her wish to be buried in the famous Hollywood Cemetery(Opens in a new tab). And while her Oscars plaque was posthumously donated to Howard University, as she had requested, it is now reportedly missing(Opens in a new tab). Goff said the Academy told him only a few years ago that it would be replaced, but that still hasn’t materialized.
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Despite living in a country that “has always looked at us as subhuman,” as Goff previously wrote in the San Diego Tribune(Opens in a new tab), it’s McDaniel’s poise while persevering that should be heralded, he told Mashable.
“This is the thing that impresses me about Hattie. It’s not the Oscar. It’s not the fact that she succeeded in Hollywood despite the obstacles. The thing that impresses me about Hattie is that while all of this was going on… she’s being compassionate and gracious. Imagine all of these doors are being slammed in your face and you still have this humanity. That’s courage.”
That isn’t to say that McDaniel’s win shouldn’t still be talked about in an age where Black communities still have to battle for representation, recognition, and basic rights. This history serves more as a reminder to the film industry at large, as the Academy Awards are still predominantly white and male(Opens in a new tab), despite some improvements. “She made a subtle impact, step-by-step, so that when the next person came around in the next generation, it may even be easier for them,” said Goff.
McDaniel, who was prohibited from attending the world premiere of her own film, broke barriers just by attending the 12th Academy Awards, held at the segregated Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel(Opens in a new tab). She entered the ceremony to the applause of reformists and activists, and in opposition of industry elites, before shattering precedent as she accepted the first Oscar ever awarded to a Black actor.
“I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” McDaniel said in her acceptance speech. “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.”
But it would take 50 years for another Black woman to be honored with an Academy Award, this time recognizing Whoopi Goldberg as Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1990 film Ghost. At the 2002 Oscars ceremony, Halle Berry made her own history as the first Black woman to win the coveted Best Actress award, for her role in 2001’s Monster’s Ball.
Goldberg holds up an Academy Award for her ‘Ghost’ performance in 1990.
Credit: John Barr / Liaison / Getty Images
Berry shows off her history-making award for her 2001 performance in ‘Monster’s Ball.’
Credit: Getty Images
In total, only 10 Black women have won an Oscar, a list short enough that it can easily be recited: Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress, Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Best Supporting Actress, Precious), Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress, The Help), Lupita Nyong’o (Best Supporting Actress, 12 Years a Slave), Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, Fences), Regina King (Best Supporting Actress, If Beale Street Could Talk), and Ariana DeBose (Best Supporting Actress, West Side Story), in addition to McDaniel, Goldberg, and Berry. Berry is the only winner in the Best Actress category.
“[Hattie] makes me think of all women,” said Goff. “Don’t all women do a million things, but only get credit for two or three? You’re crushing it all the time, and you’re not getting your fair share of acknowledgement. That’s what Hattie went through. That’s what my mom went through.”
The fact that seven of the 10 Oscars awarded to Black women have been within the last 20 years may give cause for optimism, though there are contemporary examples of the continued burden on Black performers to make difficult creative decisions like those McDaniels faced decades ago. In 2011, Spencer discussed a fear of being typecast(Opens in a new tab) as a maid for her award-winning role as Minny in The Help. Bassett, now nominated for her role as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, previously shared that she turned down the role that won Halle Berry her Best Actress Oscar, reportedly calling the part “such a stereotype about Black women and sexuality.”(Opens in a new tab)
As the first Oscar-nominated performer for a role within the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for a film seen by many as emblematic of Black pride and excellence(Opens in a new tab), Bassett’s nod could represent hope for a turn toward overdue recognition. But, as television and academy audiences await the 2023 Best Supporting Actress results, it’s entirely possible that Bassett — who has only been nominated twice in her four-decade-long career— might remain on a long list of the under-acknowledged.
“It’s like a big machine that has all this power,” Goff said. “You’re trying to hop on and hitch a ride, but at the same time you’re trying to change the gears, change the direction of where it’s going. That’s a really hard thing to do.” Despite the expanded access now afforded to diverse creatives in the film industry, he said, if the same people are running the machine, they won’t want to be steered away.
Ultimately, though, the machine has just as much to lose in withholding acclaim as the artists themselves do. “I think you reap what you sow,” said Goff. “If a segment of the population doesn’t feel appreciated, and the industry is going through what it’s going through right now, will it ever be able to build itself back up?
“What you don’t want is a body of artists — who have a lot to give — to not care anymore. Because then you’re going to lose a lot of amazing stories.”