Friday, February 09, 2024

ReShonda Tate's The Queen of Sugar Hill reveals the story of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel

Seeing this biographical novel about Hattie McDaniel, you may initially assume it traces her journey from her humble Wichita origins through her groundbreaking achievement as the first Academy Award-winning Black actor, for her depiction of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Instead, Tate begins at that pivotal point, and in doing so tells an engrossing, less familiar story that digs deep to reveal what a dynamo McDaniel truly was.

Although accustomed to Hollywood racism, which tries to segregate African Americans and gives them on-screen roles as domestics, Hattie expects her Oscar triumph will open new doors. Sadly, this doesn’t happen. Through a charismatic first-person account that holds no emotion back, we experience all her victories, disappointments, missteps, and transformative close relationships.

As white audiences laugh at her comedic theatrical performances as Mammy, unaware they’re being mocked, Hattie draws the ire of the NAACP and its leader, Walter White, who claims she plays to demeaning stereotypes. His campaigns overshadow her later career. Hattie always works toward better roles and remains proud of her talent and background, having been a maid herself. She also recognizes that lighter-skinned Black actors have better opportunities. And despite the industry’s attempts to erase her sexuality, Hattie has an eye for handsome men and dives into new romances with passionate zest.

Novels about old Hollywood can become a dizzying whirlwind of famous names, but Tate gives her secondary characters defining moments in the spotlight. These include Clark Gable, whose supportive friendship sustains Hattie; up-and-coming stars Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge; and the unconventional Tallulah Bankhead. At her mansion in LA’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, Hattie throws fabulous parties and battles against restrictive covenants, just one among many little-known accomplishments. This novel, the prolific author’s first historical, is book club gold for its many discussion points. Read it to discover more about an exceptional woman who gave life her all.

The Queen of Sugar Hill was published by William Morrow on January 30 (I'd reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's February issue).

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