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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013: Representing Slavery: Hattie McDaniel

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post!]

On the power, limitations, and possibilities of performance.
To follow up the start of yesterday’s post, another argument for re-releasing Disney’s Song of the South (1946) would be that it features one of the final film performances of Hattie McDaniel, the multi-talented singer and actress who performed in more than 90 films (!) between 1932 and 1949 and who became in 1940 the first African American to win an Academy Award (for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind [1939]). In many ways, McDaniel, whose parents were former slaves and whose father fought with the US Colored Troops during the Civil War, embodies the most inspiring kind of American life; and her Oscar victory, like her legendary and hugely successful film career, reflects just how culturally and socially influential that life was. You can’t tell the story of the rise of Hollywood in the 1930s without a chapter on Hattie McDaniel.
But does it matter to that story that so many of McDaniel’s most famous characters, from Mammy in Gone and Aunt Tempy in Song to the nostalgic post-Civil War mammy figure in Shirley Temple’s The Little Colonel (1935), embodied stereotypical, even mythic, visions of African American identity, figures for whom slavery seemed to be the pleasant idyll of plantation tradition legend and in whose life the highest duty seemed to be caring for young white children? The preponderence of such roles is, to my mind, a reflection of McDaniel’s era and culture far more than of any choices or emphases of hers; but nonetheless, it does seem impossible to tell McDaniel’s individual story without recognizing the ways in which it too often dovetailed with a broader, longstanding, and still in that period dominant narrative of African American identity and community. Which is to say, an Academy Award-winning performance as a mammy is still a performance as a mammy—and one hardly (if at all) distinguishable from century-old images of that stock type.
Yet if the type had not changed much, the performers certainly had. The Mammy role in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, was played by a white actress, Jennie Lee, in blackface; a quarter of a century McDaniel would win her Oscar. Change and progress aren’t always pretty, and they’re hardly ever ideal; but the shift from Lee to McDaniel—like McDaniel’s busy and successful two decades of work more generally—represents change and progress to be sure. Indeed, it’s fair to ask whether the far more complex female slave characters and performances I’ll analyze later in this series—Django Unchained’s Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and 12 Years a Slave’s Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)—would have been possible without Hattie McDaniel and her mammies. I don’t know that they would have—and I certainly know that McDaniel comprised a vital, and far too easily dismissed, step along the way.
Next representations tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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