The list of nominees for the 94th annual Academy Awards was recently announced with a roster more diverse than previous years. Denzel Washington broke his own record as the most nominated black actor by securing his tenth nomination for his leading role in the Tragedy of Macbeth.
But who was the first black performer to be nominated for an Oscar? The Academy tweeted a tribute to the legendary Hattie McDaniel to honor her for just that. McDaniel was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress at the twelfth annual Academy Awards in 1939, for her role as Mammy in the blockbuster Gone With the Wind.
The Academy tweeted a link to her full acceptance speech, with the quote,
"This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards for your kindness."
A nice gesture, but one that was quickly undercut when people recalled her treatment by the Academy at the time. As the venue the awards show was held in then, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel, had a policy of segregation, a special request had to be made for McDaniel to be let in at all.
She also was not seated at the table with her fellow Gone With the Wind actors, but instead at one in the back corner, against a wall. When they went to a club after the ceremony to celebrate, McDaniel was not allowed entry there either.
It's also worth noting that the role that won McDaniel her Oscar was the part of a slave. Black actors and artists are usually honored for degrading roles that depict their oppression, and little beyond that, something else the Academy has been criticized for. In fact, a black woman would not win an Oscar again until fifty years later, when Whoopi Goldberg would win Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ghost.
McDaniel died of breast cancer in 1952. Her final wish was to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which she was denied due to its whites-only rule.
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