“African American moviegoers probably found Butterfly McQueen and Stepin’ Fetchit less humorous and less compelling than did their white counterparts (although it would a lie to say that these characters never elicited laughter from the balcony). What historians might explore, in this particular instance, is whether black audiences saw these characters as tricksters, their own words, actions and gestures reinterpreted as subversive acts in which white folks became the target of ridicule.”
“Although their work was always first rate and, at the very least, highly entertaining, black performers such as [Butterfly] McQueen, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit have had no end of castigation, ostracism and condemnation for their stereotypical roles in white supremacist films in the 30s and 40s …
When I first saw McQueen in Cabin in the Sky, she instantly became one of my favorite actresses. … In Cabin, the subtle way she way McQueen plays dimwit to Ethel Waters’ hot mama reminds me of one of those old Gracie Allen and George Burns’ routines. But McQueen never got the work nor the credit she deserved.”
Source: Michelle Wallace, “Invisibility Blues: When Dream Girls Grow Old,” Village Voice, January 30,1996 p.21
“In 1934, Thelma joined Miss Venezuela Jones’ Negro Youth Theatre Group in Harlem and was cast in a production of A “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” staged at New York City College. When the members of the group practiced at the Hechscher Foundation and the Lafayette Theatre, some of them would boast about their professional work in Broadway shows and nightclubs. However, Thelma could only say, ‘I was in the Butterfly Ballet.’
Her friend Ruth Moore, who was also a member of the group, listened to Thelma as she described her early appearance in the “Butterfly Ballet” of the school playlet “Aunt Sophronia at College,” Ruth then suggested that she take Butterfly as her professional name. Friends immediately began to call her ‘Butterfly,’ and she adopted the name as her own.”
Many others may have forgotten this Florida native, like I did. But, on January 7, 1911, Thelma McQueen was born in Tampa. She would change her name and experience infamy.
Her initial career goal was to become a nurse, but a high school teacher thought she had the talent to act. So young Thelma set new sights and became a dancer, hoping to one day get a chance to act. Her big break would come and it would end up being her most memorable role — Prissy.
Prissy was a young slave in the film, Gone With the Wind, and although McQueen didn’t have much of a speaking role, the line: “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing no babies!” proved to be both racially stereotypic and iconic.
The part brought similar roles that McQueen found demeaning. Her commentary on the type of roles that came her way resonate today in our #Hollywoodsowhite era.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen said. “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.”
Bottom line? McQueen had higher aspiration than the roles offered her in a time when film and television were clearly a whites-only realm. Diversity has come a long way from McQueen’s day, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
McQueen quit acting in films in 1947, but she continued acting, taking bit parts in television and radio. In 1979, she won an Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming for the ABC Afterschool Special episode “Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.”
McQueen also earned a degree in political science, which helped her in 1983 when a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in 1979.
Her only bit of controversy came long after the Prissy role in 1989 when was honored for her beliefs as an atheist. Her remarks at the Freedom from Religion Foundation event were later used as advertisements in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin. McQueen died in 1995 at the age of 84.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.