Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech

Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech Fay BainterHattie McDaniel Oscar speech (image: Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter)

The 1940 Academy Awards ceremony was held on February 29 at the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove in downtown Los Angeles. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the David O. Selznick production Gone with the Wind received eight competitive awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, the first black individual to take home an Oscar.

Fay Bainter, the previous year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for Jezebel, presented the acting awards in the supporting categories – plaques, not statuettes*, back in those days. First, Thomas Mitchell was named the Best Supporting Actor winner for his performance as a drunken doctor in John Ford's Western Stagecoach. After Mitchell finished his brief speech, Bainter introduced the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner by heralding the virtues of the United States:

I'm really especially happy that I am chosen to present this particular plaque. To me it seems 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; an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color. It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque, that I present the Academy Award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.

Hattie McDaniel's Oscar speech was reportedly written by the studio – either Selznick's or MGM. Here it is:

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: 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 their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.

Sobbing, McDaniel then exited the podium, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. (You can check out Hattie McDaniel accepting her Oscar on the Academy's website.)

Hattie McDaniel: The first 'of her race' to receive an Oscar

At the time, Daily Variety wrote that “not only was [Hattie McDaniel] the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet.”

But Fay Bainter's eulogizing notwithstanding, according to W. Burlette Carter's essay “Finding the Oscar,” the Academy (and American society as a whole) still had a long way to go in terms of being “creed, race or color-” blind: McDaniel and her companion had to sit at “a small round table at a far, back end of the large banquet room, separated from all of the white guests,” including the Gone with the Wind contingent. Months earlier, Hattie McDaniel was nowhere to be seen at the Gone with the Wind premiere in Atlanta, where the local establishment, ever mindful of traditional values, apparently wasn't all that eager to “embrace the whole of America.”

Also worth noting, in 1945, the year World War II came to an end, Hattie McDaniel and other black residents in the West Adams Heights District a.k.a. Sugar Hill, just west of downtown Los Angeles, came out victorious in another sort of war: a socially progressive one. Some of Sugar Hill's white residents were demanding the enforcement of the area's Whites Only zoning ordinance, but a Los Angeles Superior Judge threw the case out of court.

* In the photo, Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter are posing for photographers; the Oscar statuette they're holding is, quite literally, decorative. McDaniel, much like Bainter the previous year, took home an Academy Award plaque, described in “Finding the Oscar” as “approximately 5 1/2 inches by 6 inches mounted on a small base, bearing a description of the award and a molded image of a miniature Oscar.” Though possible to do so after 1943, Hattie McDaniel's Oscar plaque was never exchanged for an actual Oscar statuette.

[“1939 Academy Awards: Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Daily Variety quote re: Hattie McDaniel at the Oscars via Mason Wiley and Demian Bona's Inside Oscar. Fay Bainter Oscar 1940 speech via the IMDb.

Photo of Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter holding an Oscar statuette: © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
Text NOT to be reproduced without prior written consent.

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2 Comments to Hattie McDaniel Oscar Speech

  1. This woman made a change in her life and we thank her alot.Also if it's wasn't for her we wanted have to do want she did.So i say that she is the frist black woman to get the ocsars.So thats why we are thinking her.

  2. Rani

    I love Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. She brings such warmth to her role. She may be a slave, but she's very much her own boss. No one can push her around.