This is Nina Mae McKinney. She was born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina on June 12, 1912 (some sources say she was born in 1913) to John and Nina McKinney. She was raised by her grandmother near the estate of Col. LeRoy Sanders. Her family worked on the estate for generations and her father worked as a mailman for 27 years. Nina later relocated to New York to live with her parents at age 12. Much is not known about Nina’s childhood and how she became interested in in acting and performing. It is said that she became interested in acting at an early age performing stunts on her bike when going to pick up the mail drawing big crowds and performing in Lancaster school plays. During Nina’s childhood, all-Black movie theaters were springing up all over the country, producing films with all-Black actors and actresses instead of whites in black face. It is said that Nina probably was inspired by these films shown in one of the eight all-black theaters in South Carolina including the traveling vaudeville shows of the South.
When she was seventeen years old she made her debut in Broadway’s Lew Leslie musical review, Blackbirds of 1928. Motion picture producer, King Vidor, saw and liked her performance and then offered her a role as “Chick” in his movie Hallelujah! one of the first Hollywood movies to feature an all-Black cast. Her energetic performance as a temptress, reportedly a role that was originally written for Blackbirds’ star Ethel Waters made her an overnight sensation. MGM’s Irving Thalberg hailed Nina as “the greatest acting discovery of the age.” As a result Nina emerged as the first recognized Black actress on film and the movie and film industry’s first Black starlette and love goddess.
Unfortunately, the “Black Temptress” stereotype originated from her role that continues to haunt Black Actresses today. Critics described Nina’s role as that of “half-woman,half-child struggling between impulse and self-discipline with an uncontrolled raunchiness.” After rave reviews for her performance MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) sign her to a five-year contract. Unfortunately, like so many other Black Women, Nina fell victim to the exploitation and oppression commonly faced by Black Women in the entertainment industry. Nina was a leading lady in an racist industry where Black Women were denied leading lady roles.
Although Nina was applauded as “one of the most beautiful women of her time,” and “one of the greatest discoveries of the age” her success was short-lived. MGM’s failure to develop properties for her talents and few roles for Black Actresses limited her career. Nina’s last MGM film roles in Safe In Hell (1931) and Reckless (1935) were small. Her contract expired ending her career in Hollywood. The only roles that were offered to Nina were roles in minor films, occasional short subjects, or in the race films of Oscar Micheaux.
Nina left the United States to tour in Europe with pianist Garland Wilson where she sang in nightclubs in Paris, Budapest, London, and Dublin. She was well received by European audiences and dubbed the “Black Garbo.” Nina also starred in a revue called Chocolate and Cream (1933). In 1933, she was the first Black person to be televised in London when she appeared on a experimental television program for John Logie Baird. She starred alongside Paul Robeson twice in the films Sanders of the River (1935) and Congo Road (1930). She was among one of the first Black singers to perform at the London Palladium and at the Royal Command Performance for King George V.
Nina returned to the United States in 1939 and toured the country with Pancho Diggs and his 13 member orchestra. Soon after, Nina married trumpeter Jimmy Monroe and divorced a year later. Still unable to find work in white produced films, Nina sought out work with Black production companies where she found roles in Gang Smashers (1938), Devil’s Daughter (1939), and Mantan Messes Up (1946).
Nina’s last significant film role was in the film Pinky (1947), starring Ethel Waters in which she was the knife-wielding antagonist. After Pinky, she appeared in the film Copper Canyon (1950) and performed in the stage adaption of Rain (1951). Nina’s life during the late 1950s on into the 1960s is unknown. There are reports that she moved to Athens’ Greece in 1967 and returned to New York shortly before her death. She passed away on May 3, 1967.
Racist Hollywood prevented Nina and other Black actresses before and after her who had leading lady potential and other great talents from reaching their full potential, but her portrayal as “Chick” became the standard for the leading lady role in the film industry. It is also noted that although Nina had no formal training within performing arts, her natural talent make her accomplishments all the more noteworthy.
I Salute this AMAZING HER-story making sista!
Empak Enterprises. “Nina Mae McKinney.” A Salute to Historic Black Women. Empak Enterprises, Inc.
“Nina Mae McKinney.” African American Registry (2000-2013). Retrieved from http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/black-garbo-nina-mckinney
Stamatel, Janet. “McKinney, Nina Mae 1912–1967.” Contemporary Black Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2015).http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2874200051.html