It has been seventy-five years since Hattie McDaniel became the first black movie star to win an Academy Award. She won that award for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara’s “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind, and over the course of her long career, she would go on to play more than seventy roles as a mammy or maid. Like McDaniel, many fine early black actors and actresses were limited to minor and demeaning screen roles as servants and clowns, brutal “bucks” and tragic mulattoes, amusing “pickaninnies” and lazy “darkies,” and other outrageous stereotypes that derived from late nineteenth-century blackface minstrel shows and popular theater productions.
Few people, however, are aware of the fact that, almost a century ago, a select group of independent black (and, occasionally, white) “race filmmakers” determined to counter these persistent and unfortunate caricatures. Their “race films” — seen by blacks, largely unseen by whites, and long neglected or ignored by film historians — established new black character types and situations and became an expression of group and racial consciousness that helped to define black identity in the transition to modern urban life.
“From Mammy to Madea,” which incorporates rare film clips and movie stills, will begin an important conversation about early racial stereotypes and about the remarkable race filmmakers who attempted to create a new and separate cinema that provided a vital counter-narrative to the prevailing racist portrayals of the day.