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The Life and Struggles of Hattie McDaniel
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The Life and Struggles of Hattie McDaniel

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The Life and Struggles of Hattie McDaniel
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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Here are some of the stories we're following at NPR News today. Iraqi lawmakers have again changed the rules for next week's referendum on a new constitution. The change today reverses a decision just three days ago by Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers. Those rules would have virtually ensured passage of the new constitution. And the US military is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade and expand air bases under Central Command, including bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. You can hear details of those stories and others later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, legendary radio broadcaster and author Studs Terkel will join us in our studio. That's the next TALK OF THE NATION.

The actress Hattie McDaniel is best known for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," for which she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She was the first African-American to be so honored by Hollywood. But the years leading up to and after that moment were often a struggle, first against poverty, and also against the discrimination that pervaded American society throughout her life. In her new book, "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood," Jill Watts tells us the story of McDaniel's life.

Jill Watts joins us now from member station KSON in San Diego, California.

Thanks for being with us today, Jill.

Professor JILL WATTS (Author, "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood"): Oh, well, thank you for having me.

NEARY: You know, I opened this book expecting a kind of standard Hollywood story, and I was immediately struck by the fact that the first chapter is not about Hollywood, but it is a story of slavery, which is where you choose to begin Hattie McDaniel's story. Why?

Prof. WATTS: I thought that was really important to begin the story with her parents and their struggle in slavery, and talk about her father and his life and his journey from being sold as a child from Virginia into Tennessee. I thought it set the stage for the reality of the African-American experience, and it contrasts so greatly with Hollywood's manufactured images.

NEARY: And I think people would be surprised to know--I think I was--to realize maybe that--`know' is the wrong word, but to be reminded that Hattie McDaniel, who, of course, was around in the 1930s--that her parents were slaves.

Prof. WATTS: Right. Right. Both her parents were in slavery, and both of them left slavery before the end of the Civil War. They both escaped slavery. They met each other in what was called at the time a contraband camp. It was a place where people were gathering near the Union lines. And her father, then, signed up to fight in the war on the side of the Union Army.

NEARY: Now they had a difficult time. They were very poor. How did she emerge from that poverty into a career in Hollywood?

Prof. WATTS: Well, I think part of the--the family really did struggle, and her father fought for so many years for a pension from the government that the pension--you know, he fought 18 years and it didn't even begin to cover the family's needs. This was a family in incredibly dire poverty. And her older brother, Otis, who was incredibly talented--he was the one that kind of stumbled on to the idea that the stage could not only be a place to release your artistic talents, but also a place to help support the family. And he was the one that really brought Hattie McDaniel onto stage. He took her with him to perform when she was quite young, and she says--by her own account, that's where she got bit by the show-business bug.

NEARY: She--we, of course, know her from her film roles, but she really started out as a comedian, didn't she?

Prof. WATTS: Right, right. Those early years in Denver, when the family actually--she was born in Wichita, Kansas, and they moved to Denver just before the turn of the century. And those early years in Denver, she emerges as a young teen-ager, this incredibly satirical comedian, and she's, you know, greatly celebrated in the African-American community for parodying the very images that later on she'll be forced to play in Hollywood.

NEARY: Part of the irony of her life.

Prof. WATTS: Mm-hmm. That's correct.

NEARY: And she's also a blues singer.

Prof. WATTS: Right. Right. After, you know, several successful years in Denver, she eventually moved on and sort of embraced the blues as her performance signature, and in the 1920s enjoyed considerable success as a recording artist. She recorded several of her own compositions, and there you find she's kind of brought in another element to her personality, and that's this bold, very sensual, very, very, very outspoken blues woman.

NEARY: So here is this woman who has really forged an amazing life for herself out of very difficult beginnings; very talented, obviously, a comedian, a singer; gets to Hollywood, and what are the roles that she can be offered in Hollywood?

Prof. WATTS: Yeah. When she gets to Hollywood, I think what she finds is, is that she's really confined. I mean, you have somebody who's so, so talented, but totally constrained by the discrimination outside the studios, within the studios, and then these really, really constrained roles that she's permitted to play. African-Americans, when they came to Hollywood, would--you know, they came from these incredibly artistic backgrounds. They had played on black stages. And what they found was--is maids and butlers, mammies, those were the roles that they were confined to.

NEARY: Let's listen to a clip from one of her performances in a film. This is the 1938 film "Mad Miss Manton."

(Soundbite of "Mad Miss Manton")

Unidentified Actress #1: Hilda, the door.

Ms. HATTIE McDANIEL: (As Hilda) I heard it. I ain't deaf. Sometimes I wished I was.

Unidentified Actress #2: Have you another piece of cake, Hilda?

Ms. McDANIEL: Yes, I have, but the kitchen's closed for the night.

Unidentified Actress #1: Hilda, Miss Beverly is our guest.

Ms. McDANIEL: I didn't ask her.

Unidentified Actress #1: Comes a revolution and we'll stop being exploited by our help.

Unidentified Actress #3: In my house, the revolution is here.

NEARY: That was the actress Hattie McDaniel in the 1938 film "Mad Miss Manton." And we are talking to Jill Watts, who has written a book about the life of Hattie McDaniel. It's called "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood." If you'd like to join our conversation, if you have any questions for Jill Watts about her life, Hattie McDaniel's life, give us a call. The number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK.

Let's talk about that performance and other performances of Hattie McDaniel. She was able to put her mark on these roles, which were only intended, purely intended to be really stereotypical roles of blacks in these servant positions, servile positions.

Prof. WATTS: Yeah. I think that's what's really key to understanding her and understanding how unique her style was in comparison to other black actresses of the era. She took each role and made it her own, and I think that it's that--the clip from "Mad Miss Manton" was such a great example of the McDaniel style, where you hear her saying the lines, but underneath, there's a simmering boldness, there's a simmering, often, anger and exasperation with the people that she serves, and I think that's where the convergence of the old satirical comedian and the blues singer comes into play. And so, therefore, you get this very bold kind of presence on the screen, and that's what makes her so unique. And I think that's what we haven't thought about in terms of Hattie McDaniel. We see her sell out and we see her take the roles, but each time she plays them she attempts to rebel against them as well.

NEARY: Yeah. Was that recognized at that time, or was that thought of that way at that time?

Prof. WATTS: Well, I think there were some people within the entertainment community, actually--Clarence Muse, who was another African-American performer of the era--Muse praised her for being so unique. And I think there were people who did read the performances as unique, although, however, I think the problem with playing these roles was--is that you always had Hollywood's kind of overwhelming racism and the undercurrent running with these roles, and it was really often very hard to read the context that she wanted you to see the roles in.

NEARY: We're going to listen to another clip of Hattie McDaniel. This one is her most famous performance in "Gone With the Wind," the film that won her the Academy Award, and this is a scene right toward the end of the film. Let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of "Gone With the Wind")

Ms. McDANIEL: (As Mammy) It's Mr. Rhett I's worried about. (Sniffs) He done lost his mind these last couple o' days.

Ms. OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND: (As Melanie Wilkes) Oh, no, Mammy, no.

Ms. McDANIEL: I never seen no man, black or white, set such store in any child. When Dr. Meade say her leg broke, Mr. Rhett grabbed his gun and run out there and shoot that poor pony. And for a minute, I think he gwine to shoot hisself.

Ms. DE HAVILLAND: Oh, poor Captain Butler.

Ms. McDANIEL: And--yes'm. And Miss Scarlett, she called him a murderer for teaching that child to jump. She say, `You give me my baby what you killed!' And then he'd say, `Miss Scarlett ain't never cared nothin' about Mr. Butler.' It like to turn my blood cold, the things they say to one another. (Cries)

Ms. DE HAVILLAND: Stop, Mammy. Don't tell me any more.

Ms. McDANIEL: (Cries)

NEARY: You know, it's interesting, Jill; you write that the producer of the film didn't realize how strong her performance was until he saw the final cut, and then realized how much of an emotional center, particularly in these last scenes, Hattie McDaniel was for this film.

Prof. WATTS: Yeah, that's right. David O. Selznick, I think, thought that it was just a routine performance until they'd finally kind of assembled the film. They viewed it, and then he became convinced that this was the emotional high point of the film. And that, in part, eventually led him to nominate her for the Academy Award as best supporting actress. I think that role is a very kind of important role, where you see her getting to not only play the character she'd been playing, but infuse another kind of dramatic quality that she hadn't been allowed to do. As limited, again, as that role is, it was still important.

NEARY: Yeah. And, of course, one of the ironies is that she wasn't even allowed to attend the opening night of "Gone With the Wind" in Atlanta, and they even took her pictures off of the publicity material. Tell us about that.

Prof. WATTS: Right. Selznick had hoped to take her and the other African-American cast members to the premiere in Atlanta, but the city fathers enforced the Jim Crow segregation and said absolutely that none of the cast members, even the star, Hattie McDaniel, were welcome. And it went beyond that. I mean, he was--Selznick was--he wanted the black performers to go because he was going to use them to promote the film within the African-American community, where it had been receiving criticism. But the city fathers enforced that, and then not only did that, but took it one step further and deleted her picture from the program. In the other parts of the country, her picture appeared in the program; in LA, she attended the premiere. But in the South, she was forbidden from coming.

NEARY: In the end, though, the Academy Award did not--was disappointing, because it didn't really lead her to the kinds of roles she hoped it would.

Prof. WATTS: Right. Right. This was--the Academy Award was really a bittersweet victory. I mean, she saw herself as a pioneer and she saw herself as a trailblazer, and the first Academy Award for an African-American--she saw it as an individual accomplishment, as something that would portend better things in Hollywood and for the African-American people. But despite the fact that it was that kind of triumph, Hollywood still, you know, continued to reinforce these stereotypical roles. She had hoped for a breakthrough role and she told the press that she anticipated one coming, but it wasn't forthcoming at all. And then on top of it, it traps her kind of in between white Hollywood and then the African-American community. She's constantly kind of battling that, looking for a balance, to continue to serve the community but at the same time to serve her ambitions, which is to succeed in white Hollywood, and the cost is tremendous. It's a tremendous personal price she has to pay.

NEARY: Yeah. And--but she was very proud of her success. I want to get on to that conflict that black actors faced, the sort of--but she was--really enjoyed her success, also, we should say at the same time. She--you write that she sort of had an intellectual salon and she was very happy about the fact that she could help other people as well.

Prof. WATTS: Oh, absolutely. I think that's something, though, that goes way back in her history. You find her, even as a teen-ager, as a young woman--the performances she did then were often benefits for African-American organizations in her hometown. And, you know, even when she's struggling, she's out there and she'll get onstage and perform in a benefit. But once she's able to make it and make that breakthrough in Hollywood, she shares the success with others. She buys the home in South Harvard Street in the Adams district of Los Angeles, and she opens the doors of that home. She--like you said, she has this gathering of African-American artists where, within the walls of her home, they're able to perform the way they want to perform. And so she--you know, this is a--post-Academy Award for the first few years, I think she was quite hopeful, and she wanted to share that success with others. She supported family, friends. People talk about how people would just come to her and she'd give out the money she had, so she's quite generous in that way.

NEARY: Jill Watts is the author of "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jill, let's talk about some of the problems that Hattie McDaniel and other black actors had to confront in Hollywood in terms of just--other black Americans began really rejecting them and turning against them because they did continue to play these stereotypical roles, and they kept arguing that they had to; they had no choice.

Prof. WATTS: Right. Right. I think you see during the 1930s the frustrations continually mounting within the African-American community, and I think the argument well-made that these roles continued to enforce the oppression of African-American people. And the black performers, they would argue, `Well, if we don't play these roles, we'll vanish from the screen, or they'll use white actors in blackface,' which Hollywood had done. And they also continued to argue that they were trailblazers, and just by hanging in the industry that was going to open these doors. And you have to admit, I mean, they faced considerable discrimination within the industry; however, you know, like I said, the argument was well-made that these stereotypes, which continually persisted, people became frustrated with and people in American society were educated by those stereotypes, and that's the attitudes that they walked away with towards the African-American people.

NEARY: Yeah.

Prof. WATTS: So that debate continues to heat up into the 1940s, once the war begins, then it really takes off, because the war opens up the doors for the potential for better images with the government supporting the idea that Hollywood should reform its images, and there was a sort of ulterior motive in that they hoped to recruit African-Americans into the American military.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Fernando in San Antonio.

Fernando, go ahead.

FERNANDO (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. A quick question: How old was Ms. McDaniel when she won the Academy Award?

Prof. WATTS: Oh, she won the Academy Award in 1940, and so she was born in 1893, so she was 47.

FERNANDO: OK. And now my question is: How much has Hollywood really changed when she won the Academy Award in 1940, and it took over 60 years before a black actor or actress won best actor?

NEARY: Halle Berry.

Prof. WATTS: What--right. Right. I think that's a whole book in and of itself. I think that's a really, really important question. And I'm kind of hoping that if we go back to this earlier era and look at the discrimination that was faced by these performers, the foundation of racism within the movie industry, that we can better understand what the performers in these modern times are facing. So I think it's--Hattie McDaniel and that group of people, they faced segregation on the movie lots; they couldn't eat in the commissaries, or if they did--they were allowed to eat in the commissaries, they were forced to eat at the counter. They didn't make the same wages. They didn't have wardrobe assistants. They didn't have dressing rooms. They--it's a whole plethora of things that they faced.

Now you can't deny that, to some degree, that's changed. However, I think what you're pointing up is that we have to talk about the images that we see, and I think Spike Lee has been very articulate in reminding us that this--images have become institutionalized in our culture, and we need to go back and look at those images and we need more dignified roles for African-American people.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Fernando.

FERNANDO: Goodbye.

NEARY: You know, and you point out, sadly and ironically, I guess, that when Halle Berry accepted her Academy Award and she thanked a whole line of other African-American actress who had come before her, she didn't mention Hattie McDaniel.

Prof. WATTS: That's true, but I think what Halle Berry was doing is she was looking at the pioneers just before her, Diahann Carroll and the others who had preceded in the industry just before she came into the industry. So I think that Halle Berry was--kind of had her eye on that generation that had broken down the doors in the '60s and '70s. And those performers, they faced considerable discrimination, too. They were sort of knocking down those doors that still had been there since Hattie McDaniel's period.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Jill.

Prof. WATTS: Oh, well, thank you so much for having me.

NEARY: Jill Watts is a professor of history at California State University, San Marcos, and she is the author of "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood." She joined us from member station KSON in San Diego, California.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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