Seventy-six years ago today, on February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, taking home the gold for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
But not all was perfect in Tinseltown: The film itself was highly controversial. Leonard J. Leff wrote about the racial politics of Gone with the Wind in our 1999 December issue:
Carlton Moss, writing in the Daily Worker, sternly condemned the picture. “Sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story,” he told readers, Gone With the Wind offered up a motley collection of flat black characters that insulted the black audience. Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy was especially loathsome in her love for a family, the O’Haras, “that has helped to keep her people enchained for centuries.” The reviewer for the Chicago Defender called GWTW a “weapon of terror against black America.”
Black activists responded with actions as well as words.