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First Black Oscar winner faced Hollywood's racism - nephew

Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win an Oscar, persevered through countless challenges with racism during her time in Hollywood, according to her nephew Kevin John Goff. He explained in an exclusive interview that being the first trailblazer comes with its own set of trials and tribulations, much like forging a path through an uncharted mountain. Despite knowing there would be difficulties, Hattie was determined and prepared to face them head on.

Anadolu Agency CINEMA
Published March 01,2024

Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win an Oscar, faced numerous challenges with racism throughout her career in Hollywood, said her nephew Kevin John Goff.

"When you're first, it's difficult, like if you blaze a trail through a mountain, there's never been a trail. That's going to be a difficult journey (for Hattie). So she knew there would be some difficulties, but she was prepared for them," said Goff in an exclusive interview with Anadolu.

"The Others of Hollywood," filed by Anadolu, unveils Hattie McDaniel's struggle against racial discrimination in Hollywood, highlighting her career as an actress, singer, and radio artist.

Kevin John Goff, an American film producer and actor who is the grandson of Hattie McDaniel's sister Etta McDaniel, praised McDaniel as the first Black woman to win an Oscar Academy Award for her role in Gone with the Wind.

"This is a big moment. She knows that she has made history," he said.

He also noted that Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1893, in Wichita, Kansas, as the youngest of 13 children.

"She wanted to entertain people. When she was a little girl, she entertained her family and friends. She knew what she wanted to be right from the very beginning of her life when Black people faced what they would call Jim Crow."

Goff pointed out that the famous actress grew up during a time of widespread anti-Black racism.

"Jim Crow was a form of racism. You had to drink from separate water fountains. They would have a whitewater fountain, the Blackwater fountain. There were opportunities that people of color didn't have that their white counterparts had. So she grew up in that world from the very beginning, even until she died in 1952."

- 'If you were a Black performer, there were only certain types of roles you could get'

Hattie McDaniel began her career as a singer and songwriter, aiming to enter the film industry as an actress in the 1910s, but she had to work as a maid due to financial constraints, according to Goff.

He also noted that McDaniel generally played the role of a maid in films.

"In real life, she had been a maid. She cleaned houses and cooked meals for white families. So she did all kinds of different jobs just to survive. It definitely was a survival thing for her. But she didn't let those things bother her in a sense."

Goff stressed that McDaniel's breakthrough was achieved through her hard work, particularly in her role as a maid in The Golden West in 1932.

"I think her watching her father who was in a civil war, this soldier who was injured and he had that injury for the rest of his life. She would watch her father suffer and even though he was gravely injured, he would still go out and try to work like hard labor jobs. And I think she took that drive and and passion to never give up. So by the time she got to Hollywood, she didn't know how to give up and it wasn't her fault."

He also stated that McDaniel faced backlash from the Black movement as her fame grew due to her roles as a maid.

"If you were a Black performer, there were only certain types of roles you could get. You were a Butler or a maid. You were cleaning someone's house. Maybe you were in the field picking cotton. You were treated as not that intelligent. That's the way that white society and white Hollywood treated the Black performer and the Black person."

- 'Not being invited to the premiere of the film in Atlanta must have hurt her'

Goff emphasized the significant role of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind in Hattie McDaniel's career.

"Gone With the Wind came out in 1939. It was the biggest film ever. Everybody was talking about it. Everybody wants to see it. Every actor wanted to be in it. Hattie had already been in a few films, but this was going to be her biggest opportunity."

He stated that McDaniel portrayed a nanny named Mammy in the film.

"She knew that this was going to be a big opportunity to make something amazing happen so that other Black performers would have even more of an opportunity. Because up to that point, Black actors could only get certain roles and films. You never could get the lead role in the top row, and you were never thought of as capable of doing that. So she knew she had to really give an amazing form so that it would open up the eyes to the world. So people would into a film of this magnitude of the size."

Goff also noted that McDaniel was prevented from attending the film premiere in Atlanta due to the city's discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

"She lived her whole life, and she wanted to be at the premiere of her film Gone with the Wind in Atlanta. And they said no, we can't, we're not going to have Black people as part of the celebration. I'm sure she was hurt. I'm sure that it didn't feel good for her not to be invited, and her co-star in the film, Clark Gable, when he found out that Hattie was in the Hattie and the other Black performers from that film were not invited."

"Even when situations weren't good for her, she didn't want that to kind of spill over to everybody else," he added.

- She couldn't be buried in the Hollywood cemetery because she was Black

Goff stated that the Mammy character in Gone with the Wind earned his great aunt an Academy Award for "Best Supporting Actress."

"She knows that she has made history. So when she went up there to accept that award, she got tears and was barely able to finish the speech. You can hear her voice. She's greatly emotional."

He said that Hattie McDaniel's Oscar went missing in the early 1970s.

"My father passed away years ago, but he wanted to see the Academy replace that award and give a new one. They replaced her Oscar on Oct. 1 in Washington DC at Howard University, and I was there to take part in that ceremony. So her Oscar is back."

Lastly, Goff highlighted that despite being an Oscar-winning artist, Hattie McDaniel's last wish was denied due to racist reasons after her death from breast cancer on Oct. 26, 1952.

"She wanted to be buried at Hollywood Cemetery, but they said no, we we're not going to let you be buried here. We don't accept Black people. She faced these things throughout her life. I don't want to say she was used to it, but it was something that I think she was prepared for those things and she was able to handle it."