There was a time when Black people’s only presence in film was in the capacity of servitude. On Sunday night, however, Matthew A. Cherry and producer Karen Rupert Toliver, the creator and producer of Hair Love, respectively, were honored. They were not honored as maids or butlers but rather, original creators of content. Cherry was honored as a Black man who had a vision, creative control and agency to bring it to fruition. The world has changed a great deal since Hattie McDaniel became the first Black entertainer to win an Oscar: the ceremony was held at a hotel that didn’t allow Blacks.
McDaniel was born to parents who were formerly enslaved. In addition to being an actress, she was a singer-songrwiter and comedian. McDaniel went on to become the first Black woman to sing on radio in the U.S. In 1940 she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. The ceremony was held at the Coconut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel had a strict policy against Blacks but allowed McDaniel in, as a favor to her producer. She was made to sit at a segregated table, at the far wall of the room.
McDaniel requested burial at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and that her Oscar be given to Howard University, after her death. The cemetery refused her body because of her race. Howard put the award on display in their drama department but by the early 1970s, the award had gone missing: to date it hasn’t been recovered. McDaniel, despite her talents, struggled for recognition throughout her lifetime. Further, even at the height of her success, she was shunned by many Black organizations for playing a role they believed to perpetuate negative racial stereotypes. Even in death, McDaniel never found peace.
The world has changed and Black people are no longer relegated to menial roles on screen. Rather, creatives like Cherry are creating the content that they desire to share with the world, whether or not it is acknowledged by non-Black audiences. At the furthest end of the spectrum there is Tyler Perry, who, rather than be dictated to by Hollywood, built his own studio in Atlanta. No, Perry isn’t honored in Hollywood circles but based on his net worth and the freedom he enjoys as a studio owner, he likely doesn’t care. Black people don’t need validation from anyone to create, nor does ownership require the blessing of anyone but God.