NINA MAE MCKINNEY (1917-1967) was one of the first African-American film stars and one of the first African-Americans to appear on British television. She appeared in over 30 films, more than Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge; however, she remains relatively unknown.
Born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina, McKinney was raised by her grandmother near the estate of Col. LeRoy Sanders, where her family had worked for several generations. When she was 12, her parents who were living in New York, sent for her. At 16, McKinney performed in the chorus line of the Lew Leslies Blackbirds. It was there that director King Vidor cast her in the lead role of Hallelujah!, one of the first all-black films by a major studio.
McKinney originated the stereotype of the “Black Temptress” in the role for Hallelujah! At the time, she was only 17 years old, and the young beauty was given a five-year contract with Metro-Golden-Myers (MGM). During this time, she fell into deep exploitation and oppression common to black women in Hollywood. Unfortunately, McKinney was a leading lady in an industry that had no leading roles for a black woman.
Known for her big, bright eyes and charismatic, full of life personality, McKinney became the first black movie star, sex symbol and recognized beautiful black actress by not only the black community, but also by Hollywood.
The studio, however, seemed reluctant to star her in feature films. In fact, her most notable roles during this period were in films for other studios, including a leading role in Sanders of the River in 1935, where she appears with Paul Robeson.
After MGM cut almost all her scenes in Reckless (1935), she left Hollywood for Europe where she acted and danced, appearing mostly in theatrical shows and cabaret. Billed as the “Black Garbo” (after popular actress Greta Garbo), McKinney was well received by audiences abroad.
She returned to the United States at the start of World War II where she married Jimmy Monroe, a jazz musician. She appeared in many indie films in America including Pie Pie Blackbird with Eubie Blake. After the war, she moved to Athens, Greece, and lived there until she returned to New York in 1960.
On May 3, 1967, McKinney died of a heart attack and the news of her death went unnoticed in the industry and the media at large, except for a small notice in a local paper. In 1978, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. However, her films are difficult to find.
Concrete Loop features ‘CL History Spotlights’ each week honoring individuals who have played pivotal roles in history. submissions are welcome.