In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, taking home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. To quote a friend, there’s a lot happening in the 1:40 minutes that document her acceptance speech.
1939’s stately Best Supporting Actress Fay Bainter introduced the historic moment by noting, “It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America….”
At which point, co-star Olivia de Havilland and fellow nominees Geraldine Fitzgerald, Edna May Oliver, and Maria Ouspenskaya no doubt loosened their girdles and began contemplating their next martinis.
McDaniel’s emotional, and inspiringly brief, remarks above don’t allude to the fact that she and her escort were seated at a table near the kitchen, far from the podium and her fellow Gone with the Wind cast members’ table. Two months prior, Georgia’s segregationist laws prevented her from attending the Atlanta premiere. Protesters outside the Coconut Grove awards ceremony decried Gone with the Wind’s depiction of people of color, McDaniel’s successful efforts to get the “n” word stricken from the script notwithstanding.
It would take the Academy over two decades to single out another African-American actor’s performance—Sidney Poitier, 1963’s Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field.