cover image Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood

Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood

Jill Watts, . . Amistad, $27.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-06-051490-7

In her imperfect yet fascinating biography, Watts (Mae West ) unveils the largely tragic tale of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award. Born in 1893, the youngest daughter of freed slaves, McDaniel sang and danced to help provide for her poverty-stricken family. Her early career as a comedian and singer garnered raves. She landed in Hollywood, appearing as an extra in scores of early 1930s films. Soon speaking roles in films like Stella Dallas led to her Oscar-winning performance as Mammy in the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind . This achievement marked the pinnacle of McDaniel's career—and heralded its collapse. Despite the complexity of her portrayal, McDaniel became typecast as the affable, disgruntled or tippling domestic. Although she'd educated herself , dressed elegantly and became involved in a range of political and social issues, McDaniel was hampered by studios that presented her as an eye-rolling, dialect-speaking Jemima. Watts's strength lies in her explication of the political and social conflicts in which McDaniel was embroiled. Yet her illumination of the complex actress herself is weak; she only comes alive in the book's final chapters. Nevertheless, Watts has crafted a compelling, disturbing history of blacks in early Hollywood. Photos. Agent, Victoria Sanders . (Oct.)