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A retrospective of Nina Mae McKinney films running Nov. 10 to Nov. 30 at New York’s Film Forum will provide viewers with glimpses of the multihyphenate whose barrier-breaking career, like so many other early cinema Black artists, has been largely forgotten.
Five of the nearly 20 films the actress turned out in as many years will be shown, as well as two shorts (Pie Pie Blackbird and Black Network) that the South Carolina native made with the Nicholas Brothers, the famous Black dancing team.
Nina Mae McKinney: Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star opens with the premiere of a 35mm restoration print of King Vidor’s all-Black musical Hallelujah!, her feature debut from 1929, in which she starred as a wisecracking Jazz Age flapper who gets caught in a deadly love triangle.
McKinney — who got her start singing in Harlem clubs and on Broadway — was part Kewpie doll, part vixen and “one of the most dynamic actresses to ever grace the screen,” says Black Film Archives creator Maya Cade, who collaborated on the series. MGM was so impressed by McKinney’s skills that they signed her to a long-term contract and began touting the then-17-year-old as one of the studio’s galaxy of stars, even though substantial roles for actresses of color were practically nonexistent.
Her allure and singing talent anticipated the rise of leading ladies such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, two other glamorous light-skinned Black women (colorism made it near impossible for darker Black women to get those top roles). One of McKinney’s few big-studio credits came in William A. Wellman’s 1931 pre-code thriller Safe in Hell (screening Nov. 16), where she played a hotel proprietress, one of the film’s few respectable characters. She also was cast as an African tribal chieftess opposite the great Paul Robeson in 1935’s Sanders of the River (Nov. 23), a U.K. production that angered him because it portrayed Africans as savage, and she headlined several “race movies,” films produced outside the studio system for Black audiences.
McKinney’s last credited role was in 1949’s Pinky (Nov. 30), the Elia Kazan-directed drama that follows a young Black nurse passing for white. The title role was played by Caucasian star Jeanne Crain but McKinney sends a charge through the movie with her turn as a jealous girlfriend, telling police officers Pinky’s “nothing but a low-down colored gal trying to steal my man.”
Denied for years the major career her talent merited, this new series, says Cade, “is the least McKinney deserves.”
According to Stephen Bourne’s 1991 biography Nina Mae McKinney: The Black Garbo, the star attempted to revive her nightclub career. She also became something of a regular in “Where Are They Now?” items published in magazines like Ebony, Jet and Hue. When McKinney died in 1967 at age 54, her death certificate described her as “widowed” and a “domestic servant,” a part she fought against playing early in her career.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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