To list the three most important early films is to recognize how deeply entrenched was the racism of Hollywood and its audiences. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first blockbuster feature, depicted post-Civil War blacks as such corrupt and ignorant creatures that it literally revived the Ku Klux Klan, leading to a renewed wave of lynchings. The Jazz Singer, the first famous talking picture, had Al Jolson in blackface, singing “Mammy” to his Yiddishe mama. And Gone With the Wind, the all-time box office champ, was a sympathetic portrait of Southern slave owners and the black servants who remained loyal to them after the War Between the States. To argue that the ordinary moviegoer, dazzled by the entertainment value of these films, may have been unaware of their easy contempt for blacks, only proves how organic and institutionalized racism had become.
In GWTW, the tragedy is meant to be of a fiery gentlewoman, Scarlett O’Hara, fallen on hard times — and by extension, of the disenfranchised Southern aristocracy — not of the enslaved blacks whose cheap labor had fueled the South’s economy for more than a century. That said, the movie did, still does, provide rousing sexual melodrama and a defining performance of the willful, wile-ful Southern belle-bitch played by Vivien Leigh. The film also gave two meaty roles to black actresses: Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, the wise, domineering, de-facto manager of the Tara manor; and Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, the dithery housemaid who shrieks, in a tone that would make dogs wince, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” All right, one meaty role. Mammy — not Scarlett or her lust-object Rhett Butler or that ethereal wimp Ashley Wilkes — is the movie’s moral center and the stern arbiter of Scarlett’s strategies and whims.
The role won the rotund McDaniel an Oscar as the year’s best supporting actress. She might have earned another for her acceptance speech, a moving masterpiece of overflowing emotion capped by dignity. “I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” she told the audience, and she was, even if the industry was not a credit to her and every other black actor. McDaniel played in hundreds of movies, almost always as an assertive domestic, but she was grateful for the work. As she famously said, “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
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