This year, a record three African American women are likely to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars — Oprah Winfrey (“The Butler“), Lupita Nyongo (“12 Years a Slave“) and Octavia Spencer (“Fruitvale Station“).
While Nyongo is a newcomer, Winfrey contended in this category back in 1985 for her film debut in “The Color Purple” — losing to Angelica Huston (“Prizzi’s Honor”) — and Spencer won this award two years ago for “The Help.” She was the fifth African American to take home this trophy.
The first was Hattie McDaniel who won in 1939 for her scene-stealing performance as Mammy in Best Picture champ “Gone With the Wind.” She edged out co-star Olivia de Havilland as well as Geraldine Fitzgerald (“Wuthering Heights”), Edna May Oliver (“Drums Along the Mohawk”) and Maria Ouspenskaya (“Love Affair”).
Seven decades after McDaniel made history, Mo’Nique became the fourth African American woman to be honored in this category with her win for “Precious,” which was helmed by Lee Daniels who could contend again this year for “The Butler.” In her heartfelt acceptance speech, she referenced the pioneer: “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.” She wore a royal blue dress and gardenia in her hair as McDaniel had back on Feb. 29, 1940, when she attended the 12th Academy Awards.
Inspired by Mo’Nique, George Washington University law professor W. Burlette Carter set out to track down McDaniel’s Oscar which she had bequeathed to Howard University upon her death in 1952. While it was displayed at this historic African American college in the nation’s capital for two decades, it went missing in 1972 and has never resurfaced.
Carter’s quest took her to academy headquarters where she discovered that McDaniel and her escort were the only African Americans at the Oscar venue — the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel — that night. They were seated at a small round table at the back of the room, rather than at one of the long banquettes with the rest of the “Gone with the Wind” cast and crew. (Read a full account of Carter’s research here.)
Watch the newsreel footage below and see how long it takes McDaniel to get to the podium. And note that she is presented with a plaque rather than the traditional Oscar statue. That was the way it was for all supporting winners from the introduction of these categories in 1936 to 1942.
Before announcing the name of the winner, Fay Bainter — who had made Oscar history of her own the previous year, reaping bids for both Best Actress (“White Banners”) and Supporting Actress (“Jezebel”) and winning the latter — said, “To me it is more than just a plaque of gold, it opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls and enables us to embrace the whole of America.” She had been tipped off by the Los Angeles Times, which had printed a list of the winners before the ceremony. The academy soon plugged that leak, instituting stringent measures to ensure the secrecy of the results.
Mo’Nique has spoken of her desire to produce a biopic about McDaniel. And the second African American woman to win Supporting Actress — Whoopi Goldberg (“Ghost,” 1990) — took home a Daytime Emmy in 2002 for producing the documentary “Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel.” Goldberg — one of only 11 people to sweep the grand slam of awards — was the first African American actress to reap two Oscar nods having also contended for “The Color Purple.”
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