PopMatters Film and TV Editor
For better and for worse, Hattie McDaniel is best remembered for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. As you might imagine, McDaniel did a few other things in her life, and some of them are chronicled in AMC’s biography, Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel. Produced and directed by Madison Davis Lacy (who also made the Emmy-winning documentary Richard Wright: Black Boy, in 1995), the 45-minute film is “hosted” by Whoopi Goldberg, whose Oscar for 1990’s Ghost makes her only the third African American actor ever to win an Academy Award, after McDaniel in 1939 and Denzel Washington in 1989, for Glory; note that all of these are for Best Supporting roles). As Goldberg asserts at the beginning of the documentary, McDaniel was “the most celebrated black actress of her time,” but was also continually distressed by the many criticisms and protests ignited by the “mammy” roles she played for most of her career.
Beyond Tara has its heart in the right place, celebrating McDaniel’s achievements and reminding viewers of the many hardships she suffered. To do so, it adopts a standard narrator-archival footage-talking heads format. For no clear reason, Goldberg performs her narration while standing in what looks to be a sunlit foyer, with a pretty dining room set, complete with flowers on the table, behind her (perhaps this is a reference to McDaniel’s many stints as a “domestic”?). The interviewees range from generally informative (cultural historian Gerald Early, actress Jane White) to earnestly emotional (Nell Carter) to dully descriptive (psychiatrist Hugh Butts). Carter is perhaps most emphatic in her support for McDaniel as a model of offscreen courage and onscreen performance style: “I never felt that she was just there for decoration. She came on with a bang! She said what she had to say, and then she left.”
Carter’s enthusiasm (she even tears up at one point) is offset by the more customary “professorial” pose struck by Early and film historians Thomas Cripps and Charleyne Regester, who establish the backdrop for McDaniel’s life and career. Some of their observations will sound sadly familiar for today’s viewers: the few roles available to black actors in the 1930s and 1940s, were largely derived from minstrel shows, the NAACP undertook to protest such images, and McDaniel did not attend the Atlanta premiere of GWTW, due to the city’s overt racism. She even went so far as to write a letter to producer David O. Selznick, saying she would be “unavailable” at the time of the premiere, in order to let him off the hook for not fighting for her presence at the event.
It was this make-no-waves approach to instances of overt racism that got McDaniel into trouble, repeatedly. Picketers demonstrated against GWTW previews in Chicago and New York, and the Academy Wards ceremony in LA, McDaniel’s role was cited repeatedly as the major offense (the signs shown include one reading, “No Mo Mammy!”). According to the film’s narration (co-written by Lacy and co-producer Meia Harris), protestors decried Mammy as a “symbolic reminder of their slave past.” White films of the 1930s and 1940s regularly—even relentlessly—cast black actors, in Nell Carter’s words, “as African savages, singing slaves, and domestics,” in stories about rich white folks. McDaniel worked against this stereotyping, but from within the system, investing her versions of such characters with “humanity,” or sometimes even a bit of “subversive” attitude (shrewd line readings, suggesting some measure of righteous anger directed at her white “employers”). By the time Selznick cast her in GWTW, Goldberg reports, McDaniel had “enough clout to insist on certain script changes,” excising the word “nigger” from the script, along with Mammy’s own references to “De Lawd.”
Most of the time, however, McDaniel had to put up with indignities in order to work. And work she did. Born in 1985 in Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was earning money early in her life, as part of a family performance troupe, made up of her brothers and sisters and managed by her ex-slave father, who, Goldberg tells us, “didn’t want his daughter to be a domestic.” Later, responding to criticism of her choices, McDaniel would echo this sentiment, famously saying, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week, than be a maid for $7.” Beyond Tara outlines her career, which spanned some three decades, including brief references to her work as a band vocalist; other roles on stage (as the narration puts it, “she cut her teeth on vaudeville”), film (for examples, Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn  and Saratoga  with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow), radio and television (Beulah, who was previously played, on the radio, by a white male); her marriage and divorce from James Lloyd Crawford; her false pregnancy (which her doctor attributed to her “unmet desire to have children”); and eventually, her fatal breast cancer. Using still photos and footage of her screen performances (most of which are not titled or dated, frustrating if you want to know what movies you’re looking at), the documentary demonstrates Thomas Cripps’ assertion that there were “two Hatties,” one during the 1930s, “honored and also condemned,” and the other, during the ‘40s, “condemned only.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the pain McDaniel endured, and her life and work surely warrant careful reconsideration, and this film effects a “recovery” of this resilient woman, gifted actor, and important figure in U.S. cultural history. The film explicitly cites Selznick’s restrictions on his contract player, which confined her to mammy roles that profited him. It also contextualizes the decline of McDaniel’s career during the ‘40s, specifically citing the social shifts brought on by WWII, as it brought black men and women together “in service of their country,” and “empowered” the NAACP and its head, Walter White, to fight “plantation movies” and continued limitation to “domestic” or comic roles. As Jane White (at this point in the film identified as Walter White’s daughter) succinctly puts it, “It was a time when you could not be kind of antebellum in your attitudes.”
Goldberg’s narration offers another angle on the historical moment, saying that Walter White “offered Hollywood a more acceptable alternative to Hattie as a star, Lena Horne.” With the NAACP behind her, Horne was able to write it into her studio contract that she would not play a maid. McDaniel, of course, could not compete with Horne for the more glamorous and conventionally romantic roles that Horne would and did play. Still, Beyond Tara reminds you, McDaniel had other work to do, for instance, organizing against racial segregation in her own Los Angeles neighborhood. When a group of white neighbors tried to enforce a so-called “restrictive covenant,” she rallied her black neighbors, they took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won.
For all the good work done by Beyond Tara, there are significant, if understandable, omissions. The film does leave out details about her career (the sheer number of times she was cast as “The Maid,” either uncredited or miscredited, as “Hattie McDaniels,” throughout her career, incredibly, even after GWTW), and it does not even mention her relationships with other black actors in Hollywood, so that she looks completely isolated. While the film indicts Selznick as an individual, it does not make an aggressive broader argument against the movie industry, as a system that confined and mistreated McDaniel and that persists to this day. Specifically, the documentary doesn’t take on the Academy Awards as a flat-out racist institution; admittedly, with AMC airing the film and Goldberg narrating, this case might be a dicey one to make. And yet, with all that said, Beyond Tara has put together a valuable collection of images and serves as a welcome reminder of McDaniel’s many contributions, sacrifices, and talents.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/beyond-tara/