ON February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for giving life to Mammy, the Gone with the Wind house servant. Fay Bainter heralded McDaniel by telling the audience that the gong “opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America….”
Vivien Leigh had seen off Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo and Greer Garson to win the best actress award for playing Scarlett in GWTW, that year’s Best Picture, which somehow beat The Wizard Of Oz. (In all, Gone With The Wind won 8 Oscars.)
And now McDanile had bested Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Edna May Oliver and Maria Ouspenskaya (all white) to take the ultimate accolade.
McDaniel, who had been seated in the cheap seats by the kitchen, had been banned from attending the film’s premier in Atlanta on account of her skin hues and attending the Atlanta premiere.
Daily Variety noted: “Not only was she the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet”.
It wasn’t until Sidney Poitier, won a best actor Oscar in 1963 that a black face won an acting Oscar.
Those walls took a lot more moving than Bainter thought they would.
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