Nina Mae McKinney

Aug 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Nina Mae McKinney1912?-1967  Nina Mae McKinney burst onto the popular scene, on stage and screen, at a young age with great talent and promise. But limited by Hollywood’s preconceptions about African American lead actresses, she was frustrated after her initial success and spent much of her short professional life performing in Europe.

A Chorus Line

McKinney was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina, probably in 1912. Her father, Hal, and mother, Georgia, worked on a rural estate owned by Colonel LeRoy Springs, a local businessman, as had several generations of their family. Her father and mother moved to New York City when she was still very young, leaving McKinney in the care of her great-aunt and paternal grandmother. Demonstrating a flair for performance at an early age, McKinney performed stunts on her bicycle for appreciative crowds when she rode into town to pick up the mail, and appeared in student plays at Lancaster Industrial School, where she was known to memorize the entire cast’s lines.

During this period, the first wave of black actors began appearing in films produced by African American-owned production companies and exhibited in all-black theaters, of which there were several in South Carolina. It is possible that McKinney encountered this development while growing up. In any event, at age 12, she joined her parents in New York, and while attending public school in lower Manhattan, was exposed to the city’s rich vaudeville, theater, and film offerings. She graduated from high school at age 16, and adopting Nina Mae McKinney as her stage name, embarked on a show business career.

Her timing coincided with several other significant trends. In the late 1920s, synchronized sound and “talkie” films began to replace silent movies. As black films also shifted from silent to sound, they also moved from serious dramas, often focusing on racial themes, to incorporate the genres of mainstream white filmmakers, including musicals. As a result, producers were more likely to hire black singers, dancers, and entertainers in addition to traditional dramatic actors.

McKinney was fortunate to land a spot in the chorus line of a Lew Leslie stage show, Blackbirds of 1928, at the same time that the esteemed film producer and director, King Vidor, was casting for what would become the first all-African American film musical, Hallelujah. Vidor was considering Ethel Waters and Honey Brown for the lead, both well-established actresses. But after seeing McKinney on stage, he cast the 17-year-old girl with no professional acting experience in the role of Chick, a seductive cabaret dancer.

A Star is Born

Hallelujah, a melodrama billed as “a story of murder and redemption in the deep south,” was not a commercial success when released in 1929. But it did establish McKinney as the first of a series of glamorous, light-skinned African American actresses to engage a white, as well as black audience, and set the tone for much of the black musical genre that followed. McKinney broke new ground by portraying a sensual and fully realized young black woman, as opposed to the maids and nannies featured in most films of the time. Her signature dance, known as the “Swanee Shuffle,” was a clear influence on the style of many black actresses who followed, including Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios was sufficiently impressed with McKinney’s talent and beauty to sign her to a five-year contract. However, in keeping with the mainstream studios’ preconceptions and audience expectations of that era, she was offered only supporting roles as a slave or domestic. Unwilling to demean herself, she left Hollywood for Europe in 1930. Touring with pianist Garland Wilson, she performed at many of the top clubs in leading cities, including Paris and London. While in England, she co-starred with Paul Robeson in the film Congo Road. Then returning to the United States for a brief period, she had minor roles in Pie Pie Blackbirds and The Devil’s Daughter, and a larger one in 1931’s Safe in Hell, but soon retreated to Europe dissatisfied with the quality of opportunities at home.

McKinney became a top cabaret performer in Europe, billed as “The Black Garbo,” and continued to expand the range of possibilities for black artists. She was among the first African Americans to perform at the London Palladium, was part of a Royal Command Performance for King George V, and was the first Black to appear on British television for the BBC in 1935 and 1937. In 1939, she returned to the United States to join bandleader Pancho Diggs and his orchestra on tour. Her marriage to trumpeter Jimmy Monroe in 1940 lasted only one year, and her fortunes in the white-dominated film industry had not improved since her last try. However, black production companies were making many low-budget films that created numerous opportunities, and McKinney appeared in several of these movies.

Her final significant film role was in Pinky, for director Elia Kazan, but this was tinged with sad irony: in this story of a light-skinned southern black woman passing for white in the north, McKinney was cast in the supporting role, with the lead going to a white actress. Fading from public view and the historical record, little is known of the final chapters of her life, which may have included a sojourn in Greece. She died in New York at age 54 in 1967, overlooked by the show business and mainstream media, but memorialized in Lancaster where her portrait appears on a wall with those of other famous native sons and daughters. McKinney was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978 with a filmography totaling 22 roles, and was honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2008 highlighting “vintage black cinema.” Her path breaking influence on future generations of black actresses cannot be overestimated.


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