Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel: The Hypocrisy and Racism in Hollywood
Vivien Leigh (1913-1967), the renowned British actress, is often celebrated for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in the iconic film ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939). However, behind the scenes, lies a tale of hypocrisy and racism. In a still-issued publicity photo for the film, Leigh’s corset is being adjusted by Hattie McDaniel (1892-1952), an African-American actress who played the loyal maid, Mammy. This seemingly innocent image serves as a reminder of the discrimination faced by McDaniel during her career.
The controversy surrounding ‘Gone with the Wind’ erupted in 2020 when HBO Max decided to remove the film from its catalog, citing the racist connotations associated with the portrayal of slavery. While the film had been a classic for over 80 years, the ‘woke’ culture of the time brought attention to its problematic themes. However, amidst the debate, little was said about Hattie McDaniel, the true victim of the industry’s hypocrisy.
McDaniel, born on the same day HBO Max announced the film’s removal, June 10, 1983, was the daughter of ex-slaves. Throughout her career, she faced criticism from both the white and black communities for perpetuating stereotypes of African-Americans in her films. Despite these challenges, McDaniel managed to secure roles in Hollywood and even became the first black person to be nominated for an Oscar.
The premiere of ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939 saw the city of Atlanta, Georgia, celebrate in all its glory. However, only the white cast members were allowed to attend, and McDaniel, along with other black actors, were barred from the festivities due to segregation laws. Studio head David O. Selznick fought for McDaniel’s inclusion but was met with resistance. Clark Gable, McDaniel’s co-star, threatened to boycott the premiere if she was not allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to go anyway.
When it came time for the Oscars, McDaniel’s victory as the first black person to win an Academy Award was overshadowed by the racist policies in place. The venue, the Coconut Grove, had strict segregation policies, forcing McDaniel to sit at a table in the back of the room away from her fellow cast members. In a cruel twist of fate, the actress who portrayed a loyal servant in the film was treated as an outsider at the ceremony.
Hattie McDaniel’s story serves as a powerful reminder of the discrimination faced by African-American actors in Hollywood’s past. Despite her talent and accomplishments, she was marginalized and subjected to racial prejudice throughout her career. While ‘Gone with the Wind’ remains a cinematic masterpiece, it is essential to acknowledge and learn from the injustices that occurred behind the scenes.