January 7, 1911– Butterfly McQueen:
“As my ancestors are free from slavery, so I am free from the slavery of religion.”
Her career included work on Broadway, films and television. But poor McQueen, her reputation rests on a small role in a 1939 film that became a phenomenon, and by most measures, the biggest film of all time. It is a role no black performer would ever desire, a dimwitted slave who gets slapped by the heroine.
Like so many others, I was first attracted to Butterfly McQueen when, as a kid, I saw her as Prissy in Gone With The Wind. She was someone I laughed at, a character whose foolishness, smugness and dizziness was so outrageous that it was hilarious. She was someone who stirred my sense of the appalling and high camp. Her: “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies” became part of my lexicon. I was wrong to have found it funny. This one line embodied the kinds of stereotypes that vexed African-American actors for decades: servant, butler, bellhop, shoeshine boy, cook, maid, these were the roles available to talented African-American performers during the Golden Age of Hollywood. What choice did they have? As Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award (for playing a servant in the same film in which McQueen debuted) once said: “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” McQueen had this odd baby-doll voice and her arms flailed about like useless wings, along with those big white teeth and the rolling whites of her eyes. Plus, the names that got my attention: Prissy played by Butterfly McQueen; Butterfly McQueen is Prissy. I found them funny alright, but also frightening; maybe I would become a queen and I might be described as prissy.
I saw GWTW again in a revival house in Paris in the summer of 1969, just weeks after the Stonewall Riots. Odd, I know, but sort of romantic because I ducked in the theatre just to get out of the rain. I hated the film, even as a teenager, I found it overwrought and over-long. I watched McQueen’s Prissy again a decade later, and I still found the film distasteful, maybe even more this time because the racism made me so uncomfortable. But, I also saw something different in McQueen’s performance. I saw the capacity for revenge masked in a trance of oppression, and that part I liked.
In the famous film, the character of Prissy is seen wandering home having failed to get the doctor to help with the birthing of Melanie’s Wilkes’ baby. She is singing and thinking about something. I thought she was stupid at my first viewing, but the second time, I saw Prissy as pressing against her oppression. She is taking revenge on those who have enslaved her. She lies brazenly and fails her masters’ task to extract revenge. She is hysterical with hatred and what better cover than what they demand of her: hopeless, useless stupidity. This is what they had forced on her and Prissy smartly grabs her opportunity.
In this viewing, I took note of Prissy’s walk back to Tara and the expectant Melanie and Scarlett seemed to take an especially long time. I was taken with her moment, as she sang, winding her way back to the source of her oppression. Why should she hurry? As the doctor later tells Scarlett, there is nothing much to birthing babies. Prissy must have known this.
I saw GWTW in France at a time in my country’s history, when gays could be jailed for having sex. I totally got Prissy. I’d take my sweet time too. McQueen’s Prissy had a correlation to my own wariness and tapped-down anger. The actor and the character gave me an opportunity to look at myself and the situation with my gayness, and decide on a course of action.
For decades, her role in GWTW was dismissed as a highly objectionable racial caricature. Yet, despite this, her performance shows fragility and absurdity with a dash of the comic and the pathetic.
Now, thinking about her, it seems so perfect that McQueen would graduate with a degree in Political Science 35 years after filming her most famous role.
Playing Prissy in Gone With The Wind was not a rewarding experience for McQueen. She later wrote:
“A stupid girl. That’s what Prissy was. And producer David O. Selznick knew it was a stupid part and that I was an intelligent person. However, I did my best. My very best. And Hattie McDaniel told me: ‘You’ll never come to Hollywood again. You complain too much’.”
She was born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, the daughter of a dockworker and a maid. After she left school at 14-years-old, she worked as a nanny, but not a mammy, and at a factory before deciding to become an actor. When she was 21-years-old, McQueen joined the Negro Youth Theatre Project in Harlem and danced in the Butterfly Ballet sequence in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She soon changed her professional name to Butterfly, aptly describing her stage and screen persona. In films like The Women (1939) and Mildred Pierce (1945) the diminutive McQueen didn’t need close-ups to claim her presence. With her arms in constant motion, just like a butterfly’s wings, she always captured audiences’ attention. Then, when she spoke, she stole the scene with that crazy voice, thought to be even higher than a soprano.
After appearing as Lillian Gish’s servant girl in Selznick’s Western version of GWTW, Duel In The Sun (1946), McQueen walked away from film work. She had grown unhappy playing what she described as “handkerchief head” roles.
She did appear in the television comedy Beulah (1950-53), one of the earliest shows to feature an African-American lead. She played the best friend of the title character, played first by the great Ethel Waters, and later by Louise Beavers. Predictably, both characters worked as maids.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time because I thought that was how you got into the business. But, after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid. When I wouldn’t do Prissy over and over they wouldn’t give me any more work. But today, young black people come up to me and say you opened doors for us.”
After leaving Hollywood behind, McQueen had to find work outside of the acting profession. Her jobs included being a sales assistant in Macy’s toy department in Manhattan, a taxi dispatcher in the Bronx, and horrifyingly, as an actual maid in Atlanta. In the 1970s, she dedicated herself to social work in Harlem, and sought an education. At 64-years-old, she received her degree from the City College Of New York.
She returned to performing and found stage work, including in the Off-Broadway musical The Athenian Touch (1964). McQueen was in the original version of the stage musical The Wiz (1974) playing the Queen Of The Field Mice, a character from the original L. Frank Baum book, but the role was cut by director Geoffrey Holder, who had been brought in to fix the show during out-of town previews. McQueen did play the part of Addaperle later in the run. In 1978, she toured in her one-woman show Butterfly McQueen And Friends. McQueen:
“When you get old they want to put you on the shelf and forget about you. When they tried to do it to me, I just came out singing and dancing and showed them I’m not finished up yet.”
In 1979, she won an Emmy Award for her role in The Seven Wishes Of A Rich Kid, one of those ABC After-School Specials. Her last film role was in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986), starring Harrison Ford. She said:
“Peter Weir told me to make up my own dialogue but I did it so well he cut most of it out.”
McQueen took part in the 50th Anniversary of Gone With The Wind events in 1989, making personal appearances. But, she always made it clear that she hated playing Prissy:
“I was suffering the whole time. I didn’t know that I’d have to be just a stupid little slave. I wouldn’t let Vivien Leigh slap me, and I wouldn’t eat watermelon. I was very sensitive about that. Of course, thinking about it now, I could have had fun eating that watermelon and spitting out the pips while everyone went by!”
McQueen never married or had any children. Nothing in my research points to any romances. I don’t know if she was a lesbian, but her GWTW costar Hattie McDaniel was gay and had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Award in 1989. McQueen:
“I’m an atheist and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry. They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some of the people are hell.”
McQueen left this world in 1995, taken in a fire at her apartment. She left all of her estate to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.