M’onique and Hattie McDaniel
by Ishmael Reed
When, during her Oscar’s acceptance speech, M’onique thanked Hattie McDaniel for enduring what she didn’t have to endure, I was wondering whether Hattie McDaniel would endure being associated with an actress who performed in a movie that has been praised as representing the typical African American family by powerful critics like A.O. Scott, who said that the film would begin a national discussion about poverty.
Her character was no more than a right wing fantasy. A lazy good for nothing Welfare cheat who spends her time watching television and inviting her children to assist her in gaining an orgasm. Ronald Reagan could have written this script. Rather than being compared with Hattie McDaniel, an actress who struggled to subvert the racist scripts that Jim Crow Hollywood provided her with, M’onique’s character is more similar to that of Stepin Fetchit, a half-witted lazy roustabout. In her films, Hattie McDaniel is employed, whether paid or unpaid.
The film also exploited the marketable image of the bestial black male sex fiend, one that has become an obsession for many white Americans. Why else would The New York Post devote more front pages to Tiger Woods than to the attack on the World Trade Center?
I don’t know whether M’onique had any influence over this trashy script whose writer Geoffrey Fletcher was introduced at the Oscars ceremony with footage of the Gabourey Sidibe running down the street with a bucket of fried chicken (blacks as chicken thieves is an old minstrel routine). No watermelon dessert? I couldn’t imagine great African American writers like Cecil Brown, Quincy Troupe, John Edgar Wideman, John A.Williams, James Alan McPherson or the late Richard Wright and Chester Himes placing their names on such a script. Imagine James Baldwin cooperating with the producers of this film?
While some white men agreed with my criticisms of the film, others accosted me with vitriolic comments. Some of these men can’t do without black women whose size is XXL. Hattie McDaniel at 290 pounds acquired diabetes as a result of trying to please this crowd, a warning to Gabourey Sidibe who is being cheered on by Hollywood scavengers to a path leading to strokes and heart attacks. Is she the kind of symbol to be exhibited before a community that is prone to obesity as a result of bad markets and bad food choices?
Regardless of her obesity, Hattie McDaniel’s role in “Gone With The Wind” was dignified next to the role performed by M’onique in “Precious.” Margaret Mitchell’s book, Gone With The Wind called for a mammy who was “an inferior who mimicked her owners and accepted her place, never aspiring to anything more than to lovingly serve white people,” according to Jill Watts, author of Hattie McDaniel, Black Ambition, White Hollywood.
Hattie McDaniel commandeered Margaret Mitchell’s pro-Confederate script and subverted it. McDaniel’s mammy was “…bossy, intelligent, loud and opinionated.” Film scholar Donald Bogle notes, “not once does she bite her tongue.”
Lionsgate’s publicity’s department led by Sarah Greenberg promised investors that “Precious” would provide “a gold mine of opportunity.” Perhaps it did, but couldn’t they have followed the example of David O. Selznick? Selznick, who directed “Gone With The Wind,” and sought to engage his critics in a dialogue? By contrast surrogates for Lionsgate sought to ridicule and isolate the critics of “Precious.” A vicious attack on my Times’ Op-Ed was written by Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly.com. His site received ad revenue from “Precious.” So did awardsdaily.com where my Times’ Op-Ed was subjected to the kind of remarks that appear on the walls of restrooms. Critic Armond White was dismissed as a “contrarian.” Sapphire, the author of Push, the novel upon which “Precious” was based, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that I was “mentally ill” which might be seen as an insult to the 40 million Americans who are Bi-Polar. Criticism of the film is not confined to me and Armond White. It was criticized by prominent black academics, intellectuals, artists and journalists, including novelists Terry McMillan and Jill Nelson, playwright Paul Carter Harrison, Terry Adkins a leading African American artist who is currently living in Italy, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Charles Blow of The New York Times and Courtland Malloy of The Washington Post. Are they all mentally ill? Another thing, while M’onique’s Oscar acceptance speech was considered mean spirited--she implied that her fellow nominees were cited not for performance but because of politics-- Hattie McDaniel accepted her Oscar with grace.