The First: Hattie McDaniel and James Baskett

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in 'Gone With the Wind'

James Baskett

Long before Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress (Monster), before Denzel Washington earned his Best Supporting Actor award (Glory), and before Sidney Poitier came along broke through the Academy Awards racial barrier (being the first coloured man to win Best Actor for Lilies of the Field), there was James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel.

James Baskett  was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1946 for his work with Disney, as he played Uncle Remus in Song of the South, singing the popular song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” This made him the first male performer of African decent to win an Oscar, however it was only an honorary one, but still an amazing accomplishment.

However, the first African-American to win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel for her role in Gone With the Wind (1939), winning the Best Supporting Actress category. McDaniel was an incredibly talented individual who appeared in about 300 films, however was credited for no more than 80 of them. She was also the first black woman to sing on the radio, which one could imagine was a very controversial thing at the time but also an incredibly hopeful and liberating one. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her work in radio and the other for her motion picture contribution, and in 2006 she became the first black Oscar winner to grace a postage stamp. Reading a few quotes of McDaniel, I was struck by one in particular that definitely reflects the time but is still relevant in today’s society. She said,

“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one”

She sounds like a strong woman who knew what she was doing when she chose her acting roles and didn’t seem bothered by the typecasting that occurred. Whatever pays the bills, right?

Incredible accomplishments by two individuals who started the chip at the wall of prejudice in Hollywood. Even though caucasian actors are still the primary winners at modern ceremonies, it is reassuring to know that the likes of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Forrest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique have continued the tradition of award-winning performances. It is kind of unfortunate though, that all these winners get categorized and become a statistic of “those who won that are not white.” It is weird that our society finds it necessary to pigeon-hole everything, but Hey! That is what makes the world go round.

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