A musical interlude today, from Butterfly McQueen, born this day in 1911 and best known as the squeaky-voiced, hysterical maid Prissy in Gone with the Wind. But starting her film career with one of the largest grossing, most awarded and most beloved movies of all time was something of a poisoned chalice for McQueen.
She was between a rock and a hard place; black cast members were banned from the film’s 1939 Georgia premiere, while the film was boycotted by the NAACP for its casual, paternalistic racism. Malcolm X later said “when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug”.
McQueen was stung by this kind of criticism and vowed never to play mammy characters again. But Hollywood didn’t have much to offer a black actress who refused to play help, and after a handful of roles McQueen drifted away. She dedicated the rest of her life to the African-American community, though unlike Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, religion played no part in her activism. “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion,” she said, remaining an atheist for much of her life.
Before the end of her life McQueen made her peace with Gone with the Wind, appearing at events to mark its 50th anniversary in 1989 before dying in a fire in 1995.
So…oh yes, the music. In 1964, McQueen appeared in the musical The Athenian Touch. Her delivery of the song “Nature Fills Our World with Love” is…how best to express this? Well, imagine if the audio technology which recreated the castrato voice in the movie Farinelli was somehow able to graft Minnie Ripperton’s voice onto that of Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway. No, that’s still not it. Look, just listen:
[D’oh! The video’s gone, so here’s a profile:]