Who was the first African American to win an Academy Award?

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How Hattie McDaniel Drastically Changed Hollywood: The Story of the First African American to Win an Academy Award

When Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1940, it shifted the course of history and presented a set of opportunities for other African American creatives to follow, who were being held back by the invisible boundaries of prejudice. McDaniel, an entertainer and civil rights activist, immortalized her name with her role in the classic 1939 Gone with the Wind, and her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress paved the way for a new era of recognition for African American actors at the Oscars.

Early Life 

Born June 10, 1895, Hattie McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children born to Susan Holbert McDaniel and Henry McDaniel in Kansas. Her parents were both former slaves and her father later became the first African American sheriff in the state. The McDaniel family moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1910, and was part of the city’s thriving African American music and theater scene.

Hattie McDaniel’s Career in Theater and Music 

Right from the start of her burgeoning career on stage, McDaniel embraced her singing and comic talents. She was a powerful advocate for the freedom of African Americans’ right to perform and entertain in the pre-civil rights era. She made radio appearances in which she used her comedic skits to subtly address racial prejudice. She also toured with vaudeville companies throughout the country, provided music for a radio western show, and during the era of Don Ameche’s Fibber McGee and Molly comedy show, she showed her powerful voice talents alongside her loyal dog as a member of their canine chorus.

Her Impactful Role in Gone With The Wind 

Hattie McDaniel made history with her lead performance in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel took on the role of the charismatic and strong-willed “Mammy,” a role traditionally far-from-reality and rooted in racial stereotypes, but in McDaniel’s hands, the part pushed through limitations and handed her a major break in the business. In a time when African American actors rarely had prominent roles onscreen, McDaniel’s performance stood out and was widely praised. As noted in TIME Magazine and other news outlets, her very presence in the film was a revolutionary act of inclusivity and diversity.

The Path to Winning an Academy Award 

Though her performance in Gone With the Wind was widely recognized, it was not until she received a nomination at the 1940 Academy Awards that the full impact of her work was realized. Hattie McDaniel received the nomination alongside such legendary actors as Ida Lupino and Vivien Leigh. But no one was more surprised than she was to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, in what was then called “behind-the-scenes” performance. On that night, McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for their acting.

The Aftermath and Legacy

McDaniel used her unique role and recognition to become an advocate for creating equitable film roles for African American actors. After her historic Academy Award win, McDaniel continued to perform in more progressive and prestigious roles and remained a force in the African American entertainment industry during its formative years. In 1945, she became the first African American screenwriter to be hired by a major Hollywood studio. She continued to push forward and use her outsized presence in the industry to fight for civil rights.

McDaniel’s Impact on the Film Industry 

The impact that McDaniel’s Academy Award win was tremendous. Black entertainers across the country responded with exuberance and saw a hope for a future with better representation. McDaniel, who had grown up in a segregated society, had shown the nation that, through excellence in talent, African American actors could become the recognized figures they deserved to be, and the possibilities and recognition from the technical and performance-oriented awards would no longer be a far-fetched dream.

Message for the Future 

McDaniel’s legacy of breaking records and boundaries will live on through her impact in the industry. Her lifestyle and career choices serve as a testament to her resilience and determination in pursuing her goals. She also teaches us to never let a version of history told by those outside of our community define and limit us. Years after her passing, McDaniel remains a beacon of hope and inspiration to African Americans who want to tell their stories and impact the film industry.

The story of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award-winning performance serves as a reminder of just how far a driven and courageous spirit can go. Despite the discrimination she faced in life and even at the Oscars itself, she persevered and broke boundaries to show African Americans they can achieve unrivaled greatness in their respective fields and represent their culture fully and unabashedly on a world stage. McDaniel undoubtedly left a lasting legacy that empowered and encouraged future generations of African American actors and entertainers.

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