Maid in Hollywood
African-American screen icon Hattie McDaniel gets her say at the Chicago Humanities Festival
If you can conjure up a picture of Hattie McDaniel in your mind, she’s probably wearing a rag on her head. The first black actor to win an Oscar—she picked up 1939’s Best Supporting Actress trophy for tending to the Dixieland fussbudgets in Gone with the Wind—McDaniel made her prolific but relatively short-lived mark by playing servants who could only be described as mammies. Seen turning down the bedsheets for every white Hollywood star from Clark Gable to Bette Davis (and appearing in the since locked-away Disney film Song of the South), McDaniel was on the front end of African-American visibility in film as long as Hollywood would allow it.
Until the NAACP stepped in.
This week the actor’s largely unknown life history appears at the Chicago Humanities Festival in a one-night-only reading of Joan Sorkin’s play (mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story. (The show had a four-week run in New York earlier this year, for which star Capathia Jenkins received a Drama Desk nomination for Best Solo Performance.) As McDaniel almost never spoke publicly about her controversial image, it’s a rare peek at a contradictory American life.
According to playwright Sorkin, the tension between what McDaniel believed she was accomplishing and the message she was actually conveying is what inspired her to write Mammy. “She believed she brought humanity to these characters. She thought she was making a difference for young Americans,” Sorkin says.
Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, wasn’t crazy about the difference she was making. White believed McDaniel was helping to propagate Aunt Jemima stereotypes and steered a national campaign, as Jenkins puts it, “to get that rag off her head.”
“By around 1947, she couldn’t get a film,” Sorkin says. Though McDaniel was chummy with plenty of Hollywood elite, bad press made it easier to bury McDaniel than to keep her onscreen. (She eventually landed her own radio comedy, The Beulah Show.)
Jenkins is a uniquely qualified interpreter for McDaniel’s story. Like the woman she plays, she’s no stranger to controversy over the iconography of the Big Black Lady, the context of which has obviously changed in the succeeding decades. Last year Chicago audiences saw her on the last leg of the pre-Broadway tour of Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, a hodgepodge satire of all varieties of American musicals. Jenkins’s number “A Big Black Lady Stops the Show” was written especially for her by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Stealing Short’s own good-natured vanity project out from under him, Jenkins was the evening’s highlight with a song that skewered the theatrical tradition of including a token gospel number as a roof-raising novelty in shows that have no other trace of African-American interests.
It was the ballsiest element of Short show, but one Jenkins was anxious to take on. “Just before I got called in for Fame Becomes Me, I had said to my agent that I just couldn’t go to any more auditions where I was being called in to do the obligatory big-mama gospel number,” Jenkins says. “And then I got to do a song that made fun of that exact situation.”
Her widely admired performance in Fame Becomes Me led directly to her Hattie role. (“I was so nervous,” she recalls, “because it was my first-ever solo play.”) Jenkins admits she knew little of McDaniel before taking the role. “I’d never even seen Gone With the Wind all the way through,” she sheepishly admits. Subsequently immersing herself in all things McDaniel, she’s since found herself drawn to a woman who, unlike Jenkins, rarely got to have a say about the portrayal of black women.
As Jenkins notes, “The only thing she really said was ‘I’d rather play a maid than be one.’ ”
(mis)Understanding Mammy plays the Humanities Festival Sunday 28.