Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar. But it wasn’t what it seemed.

“You would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had.”

Such were the words of syndicated gossip columnist Louella Parsons, reflecting on the moment actress Hattie McDaniel walked across the stage at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub for the 12th annual Academy Awards and accepted her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

She was the first ever African-American to win one. It would take another 24 years before it happened again.

“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honoured guests,” she said, award in hand. “This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

McDaniel had, the year earlier, played Mammy in Gone With The Wind to critical and overwhelming acclaim. But in the moment she was allowed into the Oscars, she wasn’t able to sit with any of her cast mates.

Instead, as The Hollywood Reporter detailed in 2015, McDaniel was directed “to a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort”. The hotel had a strict no-Blacks policy at the time, and not even the 44-year-old’s world-class performance could, both literally and metaphorically, get her a seat at the table.

Born in 1893, to parents who were freed slaves, Hattie McDaniel’s story is one that will be made into a biopic.

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According to Variety, producers Alysia Allen and Aaron Magnani have obtained the rights to author Jill Watts’ 2005 biography, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.

Despite her crucial role in the film, she was banned from going to the Gone With The Wind premiere, along with other black actors because of Jim Crow laws enforcing deliberate segregation. And over the course of her career, she played 74 maid roles  – a fact that was criticised by civil rights groups including the NAACP, who believed the characters she played often embodied negative racial stereotypes.

The New York Times report she once told her critics, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7”.

“I have never apologised for the roles I play,” she also wrote in a 1947 article later published in The Hollywood Reporter.

“My own people were especially happy,” she added of her Oscar win. “They felt that in honouring me, Hollywood had honoured the entire race. That was the way I wanted it. This was too big a moment for my personal back-slapping. I wanted this occasion to prove an inspiration to Negro youth for many years to come.”

Many years later, it would appear her influence is still wildly significant.
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