Seventy-seven years ago this week, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar when she prevailed as Best Supporting Actress for her scene stealing performance as Mammy in the Best Picture champ “Gone With the Wind.” Appropriately enough for this move forward, McDaniel won her award on February 29, 1940, leap year day (the only other time the Oscars were held on this quadrennial event was in 2004 when “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” set a record by going 11 for 11).
And seven decades and seven years after McDaniel’s historic victory, Viola Davis became the seventh African American woman to be honored in this category with her win for “Fences.” While the accountants made a mistake with this year’s Best Picture presentation by giving Warren Beatty the wrong envelope, back then there was no secrecy surrounding the proceedings, with the press receiving advance copies of the winners list. However, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and ran the results in an early edition. (That prompted the academy to introduce the sealed envelope that caused such trouble the other night.)
So, those attending the 1940 ceremony at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel were aware before the first Oscar was handed out that “Gone with the Wind” had won a record eight awards, including this one for McDaniel, She edged out co-star Olivia de Havilland as well as Edna May Oliver (“Drums Along the Mohawk”), (“Gone With the Wind”), Maria Ouspenskaya (“Love Affair”) and Geraldine Fitzgerald (“Wuthering Heights”).
The newsreel footage of that night (watch above) cuts out the time it took for McDaniel to get to the podium. She had been seated far in the back of the venue. Note that McDaniel is presented with a plaque rather than the Oscar statue as were all supporting winners from the inception of these categories, in 1936, to 1942. Before announcing the name of the winner, Fay Bainter — who had her own place in Oscar history as the first dual nominee with her 1938 bids for best actress (“White Banners”) and supporting actress (“Jezebel”), winning the latter — said, “It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color.”
Whoopi Goldberg — only the second African American woman to win an Oscar — took home a daytime Emmy Award in 2002 for producing the documentary “Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel.” Goldberg — one of only 12 people to sweep the grand slam of awards — was the first African American actress to reap two Oscar bids, losing Best Actress for “The Color Purple” (1985) before winning the supporting award for “Ghost” (1990).
Davis is the only African American actress to contend at the Oscars three times: she lost her 2008 supporting bid for “Doubt” and 2011 lead nomination for “The Help” before prevailing on Sunday. And with that win, she became the first black performer (and 23rd overall) to claim the triple crown of acting. She was the first black actress to win an Emmy for a leading role in a drama series when she prevailed two years ago for “How to Get Away with Murder.” And she has two Tonys for her work in the 2010 stage version of “Fences” and another August Wilson play, “King Hedley II” in 2001.