McQueen, Butterfly (1911-1995)
McQueen, Butterfly (1911-1995)
As Scarlett O'Hara's slave Prissy in Gone with the Wind, Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen probably did more than any other entertainer to further the typecasting of African American actors and actresses in menial roles; as a life-long advocate for racial equality in Hollywood, she certainly did as much as anyone to put an end to such discrimination. One of the most widely recognized black actresses of her era, McQueen's 1947 decision to abandon cinema for a lifetime of menial labor helped pressure the film industry into abandoning its long-standing practice of relegating African Americans to menial roles. Yet throughout her six decade career, McQueen was plagued by her most celebrated on-screen line: Prissy's admission to Miss Scarlett that "I dunno nothin' 'bout birthing babies."
Born on January 11, 1911 in Tampa, Florida, to a stevedore and a domestic, Thelma McQueen intended to study nursing in New York City until a high school teacher suggested that she try her hand at acting. After studying under Janet Collins, McQueen danced with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group and debuted on stage in George Abbott's Brown Sugar. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly"—a tribute to her constantly moving hands—for her performance in the Butterfly Ballet (1935). She then moved on to the large screen where she appeared as Lulu, the cosmetics counter assistant, in The Women (1939). Yet it was as Prissy, the whiny, comic, tearful and almost pathetic house slave in David Selznick's Gone with the Wind, that the 28-year-old actress gained instant acclaim. The part was a minor one. McQueen, originally turned down for the role as too old and too dignified, transformed it into one of the leading character performances of all time. She stole scenes from stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable with her careful blend of the sassy and the obsequious. Prissy's admission to Scarlett O'Hara (Leigh) that she can not assist at the child-bed of Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Haviland) attracted an outpouring of sympathy from white audiences. McQueen, however, instantly regretted her contribution to black stereotyping. "It was not a pleasant part to play," she observed. "I didn't want to be that little slave. But I did my best, my very best." Late in life, she came to terms with the part. "Now I'm happy I did Gone with the Wind," she told The Washington Post in an interview. "I wasn't when I was twenty-eight, but it's a part of black history. You have no idea how hard it is for black actors, but things change, things blossom with time."
McQueen contributed to that progress when, after bit parts as maids in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945), she abandoned Hollywood to work as a real-life maid, a taxi dispatcher, and a Macy's salesgirl. Although she returned briefly to acting as one of television's first black stars, creating the role of the maid Oriole on The Beulah Show (1950-1953), the proud actress eventually refused to be typecast in demeaning parts and publicly declared her frustration with racial attitudes in the film industry. Her outspoken opposition to discrimination helped open doors for successors such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier. McQueen devoted the remainder of her life to a variety of causes including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Humane Society. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from The City College of New York at the age of 64. When McQueen finally returned to cinema, playing Clarice in Amazing Grace (1974) and Ma Kennywick in Mosquito Coast (1986), African American actors ranked among the largest box office draws in the nation. The "Beautiful Butterfly" was killed in a house fire on December 22, 1995.
McQueen's plight as an actress paralleled that of many African Americans in the era before the Civil Rights movement. Forced to choose between minor, often subservient parts or complete exclusion from film, McQueen came to believe that no roles were better than regressive ones. "I hated it," she stated. "The part of Prissy was so backward. I was always whining and complaining." Ironically, it was McQueen's complaint against the film industry that helped relegate such parts to the footnotes of history.
—Jacob M. Appel
Cameron, Judy, and Paul J. Christman. The Art of Gone with the Wind: The Making of a Legend. London, W. H. Allen, 1989.
Lambert, Gavin. The Making of Gone With the Wind. Boston, Little Brown, 1973.
Pyron, Darden Asbury, editor. Recasting "Gone with the Wind" in American Culture. Miami, University Press of Florida, 1983.