An icon because she broke through racial barriers, Hattie McDaniel is known the world over for her performance as the feisty Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood examines her 45-year career, during which McDaniel was often at odds with other African Americans because she took roles that some considered derogatory. The fact is, McDaniel made her mark at a time when racism permeated popular culture. Author Jill Watts, a history professor, never lets us forget this. The sledgehammer approach isn't necessary; McDaniel's fascinating story and struggle abounds in ironies.
Consider: though her father fought for the Union (with the Tennessee 12th U.S. Colored Infantry), as a minstrel show performer (influenced by the great Bert Williams), McDaniel parodied a Mammy character. She was 38 and had been twice married when she made her way to Southern California. Settling in South Central L.A., she worked as a film extra for $7.50 a day. It was 1931 and Hollywood's most popular black performer was the shuffling Stepin Fetchit. A career turning point came with an 11-day job on a Will Rogers film. By 1937, McDaniel was making more than a dozen films annually. Still, she was relegated to the roles of maids/companions. But the avid follower of positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale hunkered on.
With its romanticized depiction of the Old South, Gone With the Wind created firestorms long before it came to the screen. While the NAACP was fuming, McDaniel bought and read the book and campaigned for the part of Mammy. She wound up infusing the character with gutsy bossiness as well as devotion. She wasn't invited to the Atlanta premiere, but scored a coup by winning an Oscar as best supporting actress. Alas, what followed were offers to again portray maids, as well as a prolonged political battle with members of the Screen Actors Guild and the NAACP. As McDaniel would later surmise, there's only 18 inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the seat of the pants. When not writing about movies, Los Angeles-based journalist Pat H. Broeske likes to watch them.