McKinney, Nina Mae 1912–1967
Nina Mae McKinney 1912–1967
Actress, singer, dancer
Nina Mae McKinney was a self-taught singer, dancer, and actress who revolutionized the role of black women in film with her 1929 Hollywood film debut in Hallelujah. McKinney played the leading role in that first all-black musical film. Her stunning performance as a sexy and seductive black woman transformed America’s perceptions of black actresses, who had traditionally been cast as servants. Although McKinney’s performance was well received, American audiences were not ready to embrace all-black films, and McKinney had trouble finding work as a leading actress for the rest of her career. She spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, acting and performing as a cabaret singer. She was welcomed in Europe, where she was even referred to as the “Black Garbo.” McKinney later returned to the United States to star in black-produced films, but she was never able to find another role as powerful or as important as her debut performance.
According to most sources, Nina Mae McKinney was born Nannie Mayme McKinney on June 12, 1912, in rural Lancaster, South Carolina, although other sources have documented her birth year between 1909 and 1914. McKinney grew up on a large South Carolina estate owned by Colonel LeRoy Springs, a businessman who owned Springs Industries. Her family had worked on the Springs estate for several generations. McKinney was raised primarily by her paternal grandmother and great-aunt until the age of 12, when she joined her parents, John and Nina McKinney, in New York City. Her father worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 27 years.
Very little is known about McKinney’s childhood and how she became interested in acting. Some sources say that McKinney expressed an interest in performing and entertaining at an early age. When she was asked to ride her bike to the post office to pick up mail deliveries, McKinney would perform stunts on her bike and draw crowds. McKinney also performed in plays at Lancaster Industrial School. During her childhood black-owned film companies and all-black movie theaters were blossoming across the country. After about 1910, black films were produced starring black actors, as opposed to white actors performing with black faces. McKinney may have been exposed to and inspired by these films in one of the eight all-black movie theaters in South Carolina at that time, or she could have been influenced by the traveling vaudeville shows in the South.
When McKinney moved to New York City, she attended Public School 126 in lower Manhattan, where she was more easily exposed to theater and movies than she had been in the rural South. McKinney taught herself to sing and dance by imitating what she saw on the stage and screen. At age 16 McKinney graduated from high school and set out to pursue a performing career. She chose Nina Mae McKinney as her stage name. Her first job was as a chorus girl in Lew Leslie’s show called Blackbirds. A lucky break soon transformed McKinney from an obscure chorus girl to one of the first black film stars.
At a Glance…
Born Nannie Mayme McKinney on June 12, 1912, in Lancaster, SC; died on May 3, 1967 in New York, NY; daughter of John and Nina McKinney; married Jimmy Monroe, 1940 (divorced 1941).
Career: Blackbirds chorus girl, 1928; film actress, 1929-51; singer with pianist Garland Wilson, 1930; cabaret performer, 1932-36; British television performer, 1936-37; singer with Pancho Diggs Orchestra, 1939.
Awards: Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1978.
At the time that McKinney was working in Blackbirds, film producer and director King Vidor was casting for his film Hallelujah, which was the first all-black musical film. According to Henry T. Sampson in Blacks in Black and White, all-black movies made during the silent film era had featured dramatic black actors and had focused on important racial themes. However, with the advent of sound in movies, black films became less serious and were produced in more popular Hollywood genres such as musicals, westerns, gangster films, and comedies, and it meant that film producers began to cast singers, dancers, and comedians in their films more often than dramatic actors. This change in the black film industry was beneficial for McKinney. Vidor had planned to cast Ethel Waters or Honey Brown for the lead in his new film, but instead he chose McKinney after seeing her in Blackbirds. The unknown 17-year-old chorus girl with no professional acting experience had won out over two established actresses for a leading film role.
Hallelujah is a film about a southern black boy, Zeke Johnson, who is portrayed as a good boy until he meets a black temptress named Chick. Zeke resists Chick’s negative influences, becomes a preacher, and eventually converts Chick. However, Chick manages to undermine Zeke’s righteousness, and eventually Zeke kills her and her lover in a fit of rage. McKinney was cast as Chick, the sexy, seductive cabaret dancer. In most films of the time, black women were portrayed as maids and “mammies.” McKinney became the first black actress to play a different type of role, which led to a new stereotype for black actresses. “In McKinney’s hands and hips, Chick represented the black woman as an exotic sex object, half woman, half child,” wrote Donald Bogle in his book about blacks in the film industry, titled Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. “She was the black woman out of control of her emotions, split in two by her loyalties and her own vulnerabilities.”
McKinney’s cabaret dance scene, a stirring rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Swanee Shuffle,” influenced the sensual styles of the popular black actresses who came after her, such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. McKinney was also the first light-skinned black actress to become popular among moviegoers. Her skin color made her intriguing and appealing to white as well as black audiences. Hallelujah was not a commercial success when it appeared in 1929, but it became an American classic that influenced many subsequent black films. As Bogle explained, “In due time Hallelujah became not only an American classic but the precursor of all-Negro musicals, setting the tone for the treatment of Negro casts and themes.”
McKinney’s impressive appearance in Hallelujah led to a five-year contract with MGM studios. However, white movie-going audiences were not eager to embrace all-black films, which meant that there were few leading roles for black actresses. Rather than accept minor roles as maids or slaves, McKinney left the American film industry for Europe. In 1930 McKinney traveled with pianist Garland Wilson and played at some of Europe’s most notable night clubs, including Chez Florence in Paris and Trocadero and Cira in London.
While in London, McKinney starred in the film Congo Road with Paul Robeson, one of the most famous leading black actors of that time. McKinney then returned to the United States and landed small roles in the films Pie Pie Blackbirds and the Devil’s Daughter. Aside from Hallelujah, McKinney’s only other major role was as a hotelkeeper in the 1931 film Safe in Hell. Disappointed in the small roles for which she was cast, McKinney again returned to Europe.
McKinney was well received as a cabaret performer in Europe and she was billed as “The Black Garbo,” referring to the famous and beautiful actress of that time, Greta Garbo. In 1933 she starred in a revue called Chocolate and Cream at the Leicester Square Theater. She was one of the first black singers to star at the London Palladium, and even performed at the Royal Command Performance for King George V. According to Stephen Bourne of Stage magazine, McKinney was the first black person to be televised in London when she appeared on an experimental television program for John Logie Baird in 1933.
McKinney tried to revive her acting career while in Europe. In 1934 she performed with Debroy Somers and his band for the movie Kentucky Minstrels. A year later she made another film with Robeson called Sanders of the River. In 1936 McKinney starred in a variety show for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and she participated in the BBC’s Television Demonstration Film in 1937. During this time McKinney also traveled throughout the United Kingdom and Europe headlining variety shows. McKinney was slated to make another movie with Robeson in 1936 called Song of Freedom. However, according to Stephen Bourne of Stage magazine, the offer fell through because of McKinney’s temperamental personality. The actress who replaced McKinney, Elizabeth Welch, told Bourne that McKinney “was very young and immature, clearly unable to cope with fame and success.”
McKinney returned to the United States in 1939 to tour the country with Pancho Diggs and his 13-piece orchestra. In 1940 she married trumpeter Jimmy Monroe, but the couple divorced a year later. During the war years McKinney did not have any better luck finding leading roles in white-produced films than she had before her sojourn in Europe. As a result McKinney turned to black production companies for work. These low-budget films were produced quickly, often with no rehearsal time for the actors. However, they were an important forum for black actors and filmmakers. According to Richard Corliss of Time, “Race films [created by black production companies] gave African-American audiences a chance to see themselves, on the big screen, in roles other than predators, cartoons, buffoons, and domestic servants.” McKinney made Gang Smashers, Devil’s Daughter, and Mantan Messes Up under black production companies.
In 1949 McKinney was cast by director Elia Kazan in the popular film Pinky, in which a light-complexioned black woman from the South passes for a white woman in the North. Ironically, the lead role of the black woman was given to a white actress, Jeanie Craine, and McKinney was cast yet again in a supporting role. This was McKinney’s last major film. In 1950 she appeared in Copper Canyon and in 1951 she performed in a Brooklyn stage adaptation of Rain. Little is known about McKinney’s life in the late 1950s and 1960s. Some sources say that she moved to Athens, Greece, during that time and returned to New York shortly before her death on May 3, 1967.
Despite McKinney’s disappointments in the movie industry, she nonetheless revolutionized the role of black women in film. Her stunning performance in Hallelujah opened the door for other black actresses to pursue more challenging roles than had previously been available to them. McKinney’s beauty and light complexion also made white audiences more open to accept black actresses in film. McKinney may not have achieved the commercial success or critical acclaim of her successors, particularly Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne, but she made her own mark on the film industry. She was also a versatile entertainer who established herself as an accomplished singer, dancer, and actress. Her accomplishments are especially noteworthy in light of the fact that she had no formal training in the performing arts.
Congo Road, 1930s.
Safe in Hell, 1931.
Swan Boat, 1931.
Pie Pie Blackbirds, 1931.
Kentucky Minstrels, 1934.
Sanders of the River, 1935.
Black Network, 1936.
St. Louis Gal, 1938.
Gang Smashers, 1938.
The Devil’s Daughter, 1939.
Straight to Heaven, 1939.
Dark Waters, 1944.
Together Again, 1944.
Without Love, 1945.
Mantan Messes Up, 1946.
Night Train to Memphis Without Love, 1946.
Danger Street, 1947.
Copper Canyon, 1950.
Chocolate and Cream, 1930s.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Viking Press, 1973.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street, Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970.
Commire, Anne, and Deborah Klezmer, Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
Mapp, Edward, ed., Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, 2nd edition, Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, Scarecrow Press, 1977.
Truitt, Evelyn Mack, Who Was Who on Screen, R.R. Bowker Co., 1974.
Down Beat, December 1995, p. 73.
Stage, May 9, 2002, p. 10.
Time, April 24, 2002.
“African American Actresses: The Glamour Girls,” Suite 101, www.suitel01.com/articlecfm/classic_actresses/59772 (June 9, 2003).
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The Garden, www.doenetwork.com/garden/arts/acting.html (June 9, 2003).
“Lancaster’s Celebrated Film Star,” Sandlapper: The Magazine of South Carolina, www.sandlapper.org/mckinney.htm (June 9, 2003).
Mahogany Cafe, www.mahoganycafe.com/ladies36.html (June 9, 2003).
“Nina McKinney,” RootsWeb, www.rootsweb.com/~sclancas/records/ninamckinney.htm (June 9, 2003).
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—Janet P. Stamatel
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