This January, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on actress Butterfly McQueen, who would have celebrated her 112th birthday this month. During the Golden Age of American cinema, McQueen was often relegated to stereotypical roles of domestic servants, but she continued to work sporadically through the late-1980s and earned a Daytime Emmy Award® for her television performance in a 1979 ABC Afterschool Special. McQueen, who began her career as a dancer, was often uncredited onscreen for her work, as evidenced in her first feature film appearance in George Cukor’s 1939 classic THE WOMEN. As such, her first role is cited as Prissy in Victor Fleming’s epic GONE WITH THE WIND (that was shot before THE WOMEN but released later in 1939), for which she did receive credit, and which brought Hattie McDaniel (also in the role of an enslaved woman) the first Oscar® for an African American actor. Neither McQueen not McDaniel were able to attend the premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND in Atlanta because the theater was segregated. McQueen became known for her distinctive squeaky voice as Prissy, but she was offended at having to perform typecast roles. In her Jet obituary, she was quoted as saying: “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.”
Born Thelma McQueen to parents employed as a stevedore and a domestic worker, Butterfly McQueen got her stage name from her rapid hand-movement in a 1935 off-Broadway rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Butterfly Ballet. In an interview, McQueen contrasted the pictures she saw in her youth to the racist tropes of her adult life, stating that she grew up watching Oscar Micheaux films that portrayed Black culture as dignified Americans “striving to be the best citizens they could…human beings of the finest type.” Although McQueen studied to be a nurse, she made her Broadway debut in 1937, and several years later—still performing on Broadway and getting critical acclaim—she was discovered by a talent scout looking to cast GONE WITH THE WIND. While perpetuating negative stereotypes, the role of Prissy was McQueen’s breakthrough movie performance and led to her participation in other milestone films, including CABIN IN THE SKY (1943) and MILDRED PIERCE (1945), which brought her back together in witty banter with Joan Crawford after THE WOMEN. McQueen became fatigued by Hollywood’s failure to provide substantial roles for Black women and decided to no longer conform to those typecast characters she so despised. She used her talent to perform on the Armed Forces Radio Service during World War II and was a featured player on the television show BEULAH, which reunited her with Hattie McDaniel before the Oscar®-winning actress discontinued her role due to her fight with cancer. Making her way back to the stage, McQueen joined the original company of THE WIZ, but her part was removed from the Broadway version. Among other theatrical roles, she starred in a musical, BUTTERFLY McQUEEN AND FRIENDS, and served her community as a volunteer and a teacher.
Along with winning a Daytime Emmy® later in life, and a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, Butterfly McQueen went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree at age 64 from the City College of New York. In 1986, she returned to the big screen in THE MOSQUITO COAST and to television in the PBS adaptation of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Three years later, McQueen, a devout atheist, was the recipient of the Freethought Heroine Award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. She neither married nor had children. In an interview, McQueen stated that she kept a low profile because she only wanted to be in quality productions. In 1995, McQueen died from critical burns after lighting a kerosene heater in her cottage near Augusta, Georgia, where she lived alone.
As one of the few Black women working in the classic age of American cinema, Butterfly McQueen’s talent was suppressed by the lack of opportunity, but her comedic genius and passion for acting shone through and provided the foundation for future generations. She was celebrated at the 50th anniversary of GONE WITH THE WIND and appeared at several screenings to standing ovations. Introducing the film, she sang, “Now I must go, I hope you enjoy the show, it’s been fun to be with you, you’ve been helpful too, Prissy is very silly, sometimes willy-nilly, that’s to keep you happy friend, ‘til we’re all gone with the wind.”