One of the first African-American leading actresses in Hollywood, Nina Mae McKinney transformed the role of Black women in film with her 1929 Hollywood film debut in the all-Black musical Hallelujah. The self-taught dancer, singer and actor was still in her teens when she played the leading role as a sexy and seductive Black woman in the first all-Black musical film at MGM studio.
Film Forum reports that following rave reviews, the studio “touted her among its galaxy of stars, a first for an African American artist.” Her spectacular performance also helped change America’s perceptions of Black actresses, who were then being cast as servants. Still, American audiences were not ready to embrace all-Black films and McKinney couldn’t get work as a leading actress.
As Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers stated: “She [McKinney] could act, sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.”
Getting no role as a leading actress, McKinney moved to Europe where she was widely welcomed in her new role as a cabaret singer. She returned to the U.S., but she was not able to find any huge role as her first performance. McKinney may have had an “all-too-brief career” but she did influence other Black actresses such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge even though she didn’t achieve critical acclaim as they did.
Last month, New York’s Film Forum paid homage to McKinney, describing her as Hollywood’s first Black movie star. The Film Forum ran a retrospective of McKinney films to let viewers know more about her pioneering career.
McKinney was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in 1912 (some sources say 1913) in rural Lancaster, South Carolina. She moved to New York City at the age of 12 and attended Public School 126 in lower Manhattan, where she was more exposed to theater and movies. While in the rural South, she had shown an interest in entertainment and performed in plays at Lancaster Industrial School before moving to New York City.
In New York City, McKinney taught herself to sing and dance by imitating what she saw on the stage and screen. She began performing in Harlem’s nightclubs and was cast in the chorus for a Broadway revue titled “Blackbirds of 1928″ after graduating high school at age 16.
While McKinney was working in Blackbirds, film producer and director King Vidor was casting for his film Hallelujah. Vidor had planned to cast Ethel Waters for the lead in the film Hallelujah but instead, he chose McKinney after seeing her in Blackbirds. She “was third from the right in the chorus,” Vidor wrote in his autobiography. “She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.”
McKinney, then 17, was cast in Hallelujah (1929) as Chick, the sexy, seductive cabaret dancer. At a time when Black women were portrayed as maids and “mammies”, McKinney became the first Black actress to play a totally different kind of role, leading to a new stereotype for Black actresses. Her amazing performance as the seductress Chick brought her “immediate success” in Hollywood.
In fact, McKinney’s cabaret dance scene influenced the sensual styles of the famous Black actresses who came after her, including Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. And even though Hallelujah was not a commercial success, it became an American classic that inspired many Black films that came after it.
McKinney’s awesome appearance in Hallelujah led to a five-year contract with MGM studios. However, white movie lovers were still unwilling to embrace all-Black films, resulting in few leading roles for Black actresses. McKinney refused to be cast in minor roles as maids, so she left the American film industry for Europe, where she was well-received as a cabaret performer and was billed as “The Black Garbo,” referring to the popular actress of that time, Greta Garbo.
McKinney performed in cabarets in Budapest, Hungary; Paris, France, Dublin, Ireland; and London, UK. The light-skinned Black actress also appeared in the British films Congo Road (1930) and Sanders of the River (1935), both opposite Paul Robeson, who was one of the most famous leading Black actors of that time.
While promoting her career abroad, she briefly returned to the U.S. where she landed small roles in independent films Pie, Pie, Blackbird, 1932 and Kentucky Minstrels, 1934. She also appeared in other Hollywood films such as Safe in Hell, 1931, where she played the role of a hotelkeeper (a major role), and Reckless, 1935. BlackPast writes that her last significant Hollywood role was that of a fierce antagonist in the 1949 film, Pinky.
McKinney continued to tour globally and in 1950, she appeared in Copper Canyon. In 1951, she performed in a Brooklyn stage adaptation of Rain. Not much is known about her life after those performances but some reports say that she moved to Athens, Greece, in the late 1950s and 1960s and came back to New York before she passed away in May 1967, with her death certificate describing her as a widowed domestic servant.
Though her life and legacy as a movie star were overlooked and she didn’t earn acclaim as the other Black actresses who came after her, she did transform the role of Black women in film and paved the way for Black actors and actresses to go after more challenging roles than what had formerly been given to them.