Famous to generations as Prissy, the squeaky-voiced, scatter-brained maid to Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 epic Gone With The Wind, actress Butterfly McQueen was the only child of a single-parent mother, trained as a nurse then as a dancer and became a successful Broadway actress before being critically acclaimed for bringing “artistic mayhem” to her portrayal of apparently simple-minded maids in a handful of films during the 1940s.
Behind the scenes, McQueen was pioneering in her refusal to agree to dialogue and scenes that were beyond humiliating in their representation of African Americans to a Hollywood audience. In one scene, she was asked to eat a watermelon and spit out the seeds. She refused. During a take of the birth scene in Gone With The Wind, Vivien Leigh slapped McQueen so hard she insisted on an apology and that the slap be mimed in future takes: “I was suffering the whole time,” she said. “I didn’t know that I’d have to be just a stupid little slave.”
Roles for African American actors followed rigid racial stereotypes and McQueen’s objections were not confined to onscreen adjustments. Off-set she lobbied with other black cast members against segregated toilets and complained at the inequitable treatment of black actors. McQueen was prevented from attending the premiere of Gone With The Wind because it was held at a ‘whites-only’ theatre.
McQueen continued to work in Hollywood for the next seven years, often typecast as a maid but injecting her unique brand of comedy and pathos into every part. Her film work included amongst others, The Woman (1939) and Mildred Pierce (1945); both roles went uncredited. In 1947, after playing a supporting role in Duel of the Sun (1946), she announced she would no longer accept the racially demeaning work that she described as “handkerchief head” roles.
The offers dried up: “When I wouldn’t do Prissy over and over they wouldn’t give me any more work.” Unable to support herself as an actress, McQueen took numerous casual jobs including as a sales assistant at Macy’s toy department in New York, a cab dispatcher in the Bronx and a maid to a couple in Atlanta. Other than a part in the all-black film Killer Diller (1948), she had no movie offers for the next 20 years but was determined to stand by her principles: “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”
Occasional roles on stage, radio and television followed for a number of years and McQueen’s public profile faded. Whilst travelling to Tampa, Florida, then in her sixties, she passed through the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Washington DC, stopping briefly in the ladies’ lounge. She was instantly confronted by a security guard who took her for a pickpocket. His aggressive assault resulted in McQueen being thrown against a bench, cracking several ribs. She sued the bus line for $300,000 and after years of litigation, in 1980 she was awarded $60,000, saying: “It was absolutely the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.”
McQueen dedicated herself to social and education projects in Harlem during the 1970s and in 1975 at the age of 64, earned her degree from City College of New York. In 1978 she toured her one-woman show Butterfly McQueen and Friends and despite her insistence that “Show business is only my hobby, my main job is community work”, she received an Emmy in 1979 for her television role in The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.
Always on the lookout for good quality work, in 1986 McQueen was cast in what was to be her final film, Mosquito Coast, starring Harrison Ford. At the fiftieth anniversary of Gone With The Wind in 1989, McQueen found herself recast as a public treasure: “Everyone tells me I was a pioneer. Maybe I’ll only do one interview a year — what do you think? […] I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
Thelma ‘Butterfly’ McQueen died aged 84 on 22nd December 1995 when a kerosene heater she was trying to light at her home burst into flames.
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