On the 29th February 1940, American actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar at the Academy Awards. She won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of ‘Mammy’, an outspoken house slave, in the 1939 motion picture Gone with the Wind. Although the film won a total of ten awards, it was arguably McDaniel’s award that was most significant at the time.
Hattie McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas to two ex-slaves, and by the early 1930s had begun to establish herself as a film actress almost exclusively playing maids or cooks. Although criticised by the NAACP for perpetuating the stereotype of black women as servants, she auditioned for and won the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
The Southern United States’ Jim Crow laws meant the McDaniel was banned from attending the film’s premier at Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. While she was able to attend the subsequent Hollywood premier two weeks later, the Twelfth Academy Awards ceremony the following February highlighted the extent of racial inequality in the United States. McDaniel and her escort were racially segregated from her co-stars, and were forced to sit at a separate table at the back of the Coconut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where the ceremony was held.
While McDaniel winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was a breakthrough for African-Americans, Gone with the Wind itself was sharply criticised for its positive portrayal of the Old South. Despite this, it is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time and, when adjusted for inflation, is the most successful film in history.