Nina Mae McKinney is a black woman who could achieve success in a sphere and era that was dominated by white women
One of the first major black actresses, Nina Mae McKinney, is not someone who comes in mind when you ask about black actresses. And that’s shame, and it’s time to slightly change it. The screen siren may not have received many accolades or even made many films over the course of her career, but her work still paved the way for Black actresses and singers who came after her.
King Vidor was putting together his first sound film, a musical featuring an all-Black cast, which was one of the first of its kind. Hallelujah was about a struggling sharecropper and his complicated relationship with a woman named Chick. After seeing Nina in Blackbirds, Vidor cast her as Chick, a role the African American Registry said was seen as the original Black Temptress, “half woman, half child.” Still, Nina gained a lot of acclaim for her work in the film as well as praise from Vidor, who garnered an Oscar nomination for directing the picture.
Nina Mae McKinney was the first black actress to make a contract with a major studio. Following the success of Hallelujah, McKinney was offered a five-year contract with Metro-Golden-Mayer (MGM) in 1929. Unfortunately, it seemed as though roles were few and far between for the star once her deal was signed. The only ones sent her way seemed to be bit parts and her work in the film Reckless, in 1935, was almost entirely cut. After that, Nina was discouraged and wanted to be done with Hollywood.
Over playing small roles, Nina hit the road and toured Europe, particularly France and the U.K. She not only was able to get a few more acting roles (making her one of the first Black women to be featured in a British film), but billed as the Black Greta Garbo due to her beauty, Nina also ended up being a popular cabaret singer. She even had her own TV special on BBC. However, as World War II approached and Germany invaded Poland, Nina decided it was the safest bet to head back to the States.
When she returned to the U.S., Nina found herself only really obtaining stereotypical roles, including playing maids and prostitutes. She tried to get back to singing, even taking part in a jazz band after marrying musician Jimmy Monroe. Unfortunately, they divorced in 1938, her last film was Pinky in 1949, and after trying to return to Europe to live in Athens, Greece, she came back to New York. Nina died there in 1967 of a heart attack to little fuss in the press, according to Coffee Rhetoric.
Nina Mae McKinney was born in a time where blacks still didn’t treated like humans, but she was able to get the most out of it. And that is her true beauty.