McKinney, Nina Mae (c. 1912–1967)
McKinney, Nina Mae (c. 1912–1967)
African-American actress, singer, and dancer . Born on June 12, around 1912 (some sources give dates as early as 1909 or as late as 1914), in Lancaster, South Carolina; died in New York City on May 3, 1967; daughter of John McKinney (a postal worker) and Nina McKinney; married James Monroe, in 1940 (divorced 1941).
Raised by grandmother before moving to New York City to join parents (c. 1924); as a self-taught dancer and singer, auditioned and won a place in a black vaudeville revue and was discovered by Hollywood; appeared in MGM all-black musical Hallelujah, but after landing only minor roles in little known films, toured Europe as a jazz singer for a year (1929–30); finding few film roles on return to U.S.(1930), returned to Europe (1935–38); toured U.S. as a singer (1940s), and appeared in last film (1949); subsequent career obscure.
Hallelujah (1929); Congo Road (1930); Safe in Hell (1931); Swan Boat (1931); Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932); Reckless (1935); Sanders of the River (1935); Gang Smashers (1938); St. Louis Gal (1938); Pocomania (1939); Straight to Heaven (1939); Devil's Daughter (1939); Together Again (1944); Night Train to Memphis (1946); Mantan Messes Up (1946); Dark Waters (1947); Danger Street (1947); Pinky (1949).
The box office at Harlem's Lafayette Theater was particularly busy the week of February 12, 1930, as eager crowds lined up to buy tickets for that week's show, Snap Out of It. The vaudeville revue featured a popular dancing and comedy team, Buck and Bubbles, but it was the show's lithe, sensuous female star who was selling out the house every night. Nina Mae McKinney was back in New York, and each night's audience gave a standing ovation to the Harlem woman that Hollywood had made a sensation.
McKinney's fame among both African-American and white audiences had come virtually overnight, when she was barely 16 and had been in New York for less than five years. She had been born on June 12, around 1912, in rural Lancaster, South Carolina, to John and Nina McKinney. There had been McKinneys in South Carolina since the antebellum days of the early 19th century, and McKinneys had been living and working on the same estate in Lancaster for as long as anyone could remember. John McKinney was employed by the postal service, traveling the muddy roads of Lancaster County, midway between Columbia, the state capital, some distance to the southeast and the North Carolina border to the northwest; but shortly after Nina Mae's birth, the McKinneys moved to New York, leaving their daughter in the care of John's mother. Little is known of Nina Mae's childhood years with her grandmother, who is described as an "old and trusted servant" of the family which owned the estate, but it is likely that at some time during this period one of the traveling vaudeville shows that toured the South set up a tent in the area. Such shows were virtually the only form of entertainment for America's rural Southern blacks in the first decades of the century, and served as springboards for the careers of such notable African-American entertainers of the day as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey , and Ethel Waters . It is tempting to think that Grandmother McKinney provided her granddaughter with her first exposure to show business, either at one of the traveling shows or at an all-black movie theater showing one of any number of films produced by a then-lively African-American motion-picture industry.
Since the earliest days of motion pictures, white producers and studios had been making films featuring white performers in blackface, little more than filmed minstrel shows for white audiences built around the prevailing stereotypes of the "American Negro." But as early as 1910, William Foster, a white educator, had produced a short film in Chicago with an all-black cast; and the Lincoln Film Company established in Los Angeles in 1916 was the first formed by blacks to produce films directed specifically at black audiences. Lincoln's Realization of a Negro's Ambition, released in 1916, was the first film with an all-black cast that attempted to portray the middle-class aspirations of African-Americans in a realistic manner. Its success was the catalyst for a number of black-owned film companies, such as Unique Films, Million Dollar Productions, and the longest-running of them all, Oscar Michaux's Film and Book Company, which not only produced films but operated a booking circuit of all-black theaters until the 1950s. There were eight such theaters in South Carolina during McKinney's childhood, most of them in Columbia.
By the time McKinney was sent to join her parents in 1924, the black film industry was in full swing, especially in New York, where many such films were produced. Nina was enrolled in P.S. 126 in lower Manhattan, where vaudeville shows and films were much more accessible than in South Carolina; and Harlem theaters like the Alhambra, the Apollo, the Franklin, and the Roosevelt, just a subway ride away, all included films in their weekly entertainment offerings. It was at such theaters, and by listening to records, that McKinney taught herself to sing and dance. By the time she was 16, just as she was graduating from high school, she won a place in the chorus line of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, a long-running all-black Broadway revue modeled on Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies. By this time, white Hollywood had begun to realize that there was money to be made in so-called "race pictures," especially now that talking pictures had become technically feasible. In the audience at one night's Blackbirds performance was King Vidor, who had been hired by MGM to direct the film that would make McKinney a star, 1929's Hallelujah.
MGM was well aware that rival Twentieth Century-Fox was preparing to release Hearts in Dixie, starring the African-American actor Stepin Fetchit. Billed as the first "all-singing, alldancing, all-Negro" musical film, it was set on an idyllic Southern plantation full of lazy, irresponsible, but nonetheless tuneful slaves serving benevolent white masters. The New York Time s' critic Mordaunt Hall thought the film was "truthful in its reflection of the black men in those days down yonder in the cornfields," but
fellow critic Henry Dobbs, also white, pointedly disagreed. "It is obvious," he wrote, "that Hearts in Dixie director Paul Sloane has not yet emerged from that state of mind which conceives of the Negro film as leaning towards open-necked shirts, banana hats, and the melodic charms of 'Old Black Joe' and 'The Lonesome Road.' If Hearts in Dixie is a specimen of colored expression under the aegis of Hollywood, let us, next time, hand the whole process over to the Negroes themselves."
King Vidor believed that Hallelujah would answer some of Dobbs' criticisms, and would later claim that Nina Mae McKinney, more than any other cast member, carried the film and made it a success with black and white audiences alike. Vidor cast her as Chick, the film's seductive female lead who lures the son of a poor sharecropping family into temptation before he renounces her, becomes a preacher, eventually leads Chick to baptism and salvation, only to kill her out of jealousy of her new lover. Although McKinney was Vidor's second choice for the role, he professed himself well-satisfied with his decision and labeled her performance as "sensational." Hallelujah was a lavish production, featuring 40 musical numbers (including one by Irving Berlin) and a huge cast with some of the best African-American talent of the day—Victoria Spivey, Fannie Belle De Knight , and William Fountaine among them.
Because of McKinney's light-skinned complexion, Chick is referred to in the film as "that cinnamon gal" and "high yeller," and Vidor's choice of his leading lady was a commercial one. White audiences would accept her as the screen's first black "love goddess," while they would only accept darker-skinned actresses—like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers , and Butterfly McQueen —in the roles of maids, housekeepers, or queens of the jungle. "Only light-skinned women," writes black cultural historian Gary Hull, "who represented a basically white style of beauty were shown as sexually desirable." Mc Kinney certainly helped the image with the sinuous dance she performed in the film, the "Swanee Shuffle," and with her delivery of seductive musical numbers in a brassy voice, her hands planted enticingly on her hips.
Hollywood tells the world [that a black is] only… a trespasser in the world of make-believe.
—Film critic Earl Morris, 1948
"Miss McKinney is Lilith herself, a pure child of emotion," the New York Amsterdam News told its black readership, while Mordaunt Hall wrote, "Nina Mae McKinney… gives a clever performance as Chick," and went on to praise the film's revival meeting sequences with the characteristically blunt racism of the period. "In portraying the peculiarly typical religious hysteria of the darkies and their gullibility," he noted, "Mr. Vidor atones for any sloth in preceding scenes." When the film opened in London, the British weekly Theater and Film Illustrated called it "a song of the American Negro," asserting that "rarely has the spirit of the Negro people been so finely portrayed as in this picture." Though Vidor probably intended the film to accurately and sympathetically portray African-Americans, much of the black press vehemently pointed out that the film's characterizations were more racist imaginings of white Americans. "King Vidor's Filthy Hands Reeking With Prejudice," read one headline; and in the same review of the film which praised McKinney's performance, the Amsterdam New s' Paul Holt wrote that Hallelujah, "while pretending to be a fervent appeal for understanding, is really just an opportunity for white Americans to say, 'Yes, that's what they really are, barbaric, stupid, child-like, dangerous.'" The great black actor and humanitarian Paul Robeson complained that "the burlesquing of religious matters appeared sheer blasphemy."
Still, it was Nina Mae McKinney's singing, tap dancing, and shimmying that captured the imagination and brought full houses to the Lafayette and other theaters in which she appeared after the film's release. Fans wanted to see for themselves the woman who "made a preacher lay his Bible down," especially when it was reported that McKinney had become engaged and would soon marry. McKinney denied the reports and told the Amsterdam News that far from settling down, she had just signed a five-year contract with MGM and was thinking of embarking on a European tour. "From a carefree little miss," the News verbosely reported, "she has been forced to assume responsibilities of a prominence which bids fair to find her basking in the realities of undreamed monetary returns for her work that will from time to time furrow her little brow."
The truth was that there were no more starring roles for McKinney. Although MGM, in its enthusiasm following Hallelujah's release, had indeed put her under contract, there were no parts to be found for her at a major studio catering to a mostly white market. After turning down the more typical maids or slaves which were the only roles available to black actors in the majority of films being made, McKinney decided that Europe might prove to be a more fertile ground for her talents. In 1930, she set sail for the Continent in the company of a pianist.
Her reputation preceded her, for Hallelujah had been even more successful abroad. She was billed as "the black Garbo," and when the New York Post's music critic Richard Watts, Jr., happened to see her cabaret act in Athens, he wired back that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world. Over the next year, McKinney played to jazz-hungry audiences throughout Europe, at some of the Continent's most chic night spots, such as Chez Florence in Paris and the Trocadero in London, as well as clubs in Dublin, Berlin, and Budapest. While in London, she was introduced to Robeson, who was so taken with her that he insisted she star with him in his next film, United Artists' Congo Road, which was released in 1931, just as McKinney was returning to the United States. Back home, film roles for her seemed as sparse as ever, certainly in major studio films, but McKinney managed to find a few parts in the studios' "race pictures." She was directed by a young William Wellman in 1931's Safe in Hell for MGM, an escaped-convict film set in the Caribbean that, according to Mordaunt Hall, had little to recommend it except McKinney's performance as the barmaid Leonie, which he called "about the most entertaining item in the film." The 1935 musical comedy Reckless, also for MGM, was the only mainstream white film in which she made an appearance as herself, in a nightclub sequence. McKinney's voice, to which the film's star, Carole Lombard , lip-synched her own musical numbers, went uncredited.
A string of nightclub appearances in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles kept McKinney busy between films, but after completing work on Reckless she headed back to the steadier work offered in Europe. There, McKinney once again costarred with Robeson in London Films' 1935 Sanders of the River, a jungle epic adapted from the "Mr. Commissioner Sanders" stories of Edgar Wallace. McKinney played Lilongo, the wife of Robeson's tribal chief Bosambo, both of whom nearly lose their lives for siding with their British colonial rulers in a tribal uprising before being rescued by Commissioner Sanders. Robeson had taken the role based on a script in which scenes that did not include him were later altered, giving the final picture a smug British colonial gloss at the expense of the "savage" natives. (Robeson stormed out of the screening and unsuccessfully tried to have the film's release blocked.) The film, in any event, was not well received, the Times' Andrè Sennwald noting that "the talented Nina Mae McKinney is likely to impress you more as a Harlem nightclub entertainer than a savage jungle beauty." During the next few years, McKinney was one of a number of American black performers who met with great success before European audiences, including Josephine Baker , Ethel Waters, and Robeson. But by the late 1930s, a Europe in turmoil was heading for World War II. For the second time in less than ten years, McKinney came home.
While McKinney was again frustrated in her search for work in mainstream, white-produced films, she had much better luck in a resurgent black-film industry. After a slump in the face of competition from the bigger budgeted "race pictures" released by the major studios, Oscar Micheaux's company, as well as other black companies, began to prosper just before the war. By now, the balconies of formerly all-white theaters had been opened to African-Americans, vastly increasing the number of blacks looking
for filmed entertainment; and many white theaters throughout the South instituted special "midnight shows" for black audiences, thus boosting the number of outlets for all-black films. Black-produced films at this time were usually low-budget replicas of prevailing genres popular with white audiences—gangster pictures, domestic dramas, even Westerns. Most were shot in less than a week for under $15,000, with little or no rehearsal time, and their production values seem laughable by today's standards. But their importance lies elsewhere than in cinematic quality, for these films were countering the self-image foisted on blacks by whites and reinforced by the performances of such actors as Stepin Fetchit. While Gone With the Wind's only black characters were plantation servants, films like 1937's Black Manhattan and 1938's God's Stepchildren presented contemporary African-Americans in contemporary settings, with characterizations which mirrored those of the major studios' white product, good, bad, and everything in between. McKinney, like many other of her contemporaries, churned out a string of these black-produced films during the late 1930s and early 1940s—among them Devil's Daughter, a tale of two sisters competing for control of their dying father's Haitian estate; Mantan Messes Up, one of several "Mantan" comedies starring Mantan Moreland, who would gain fame with white audiences as the wide-eyed chauffeur-valet in Charlie Chan films; and two gangster pictures, Gang Smashers and Gun Moll, both set in Chicago. All were produced by black-owned production companies, directed by blacks, and released by black-operated distributors.
But the white-controlled film world remained a restricted one to McKinney, as it would to most black actors of her day, although Hattie McDaniel gained distinction as the first black actress to win an Academy Award for her performance in Gone With the Wind. What few roles McKinney could find in white films were small, and almost always as a maid, such as her appearance in United Artists' Dark Waters in 1947. In 1949, Elia Kazan cast her as the spiteful Rozelia in Pinky, in which white actress Jeanne Crain won the lead role that might have seemed eminently suitable for the light-complexioned Mc-Kinney—that of a light-skinned black nurse who passes herself off as white to win the affections of a white doctor in a Southern town. Although the film was the most socially significant and controversial in which McKinney appeared, repeatedly selling out Broadway's Rivoli Theater during its New York run and attracting the suspicions of Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee as "communistic," Kazan never even mentions McKinney in his recollections of the film, dwelling instead on the only black with a major part in the picture, Ethel Waters, who played the role of the loyal Southern "mammy," Aunt Dicey, opposite Ethel Barrymore 's imperious white aristocrat, Miss Em. The strains of struggling for a livelihood after 20 years in the business were beginning to show on McKinney, with one critic noting the contrast between the "stocky, bleary-eyed harridan" Rozelia in 1949's Pinky and the "bright-eyed, carefree Chick" of 1929's Hallelujah. Pinky would prove to be McKinney's last film.
Throughout the war years, McKinney relied on her musical and theatrical talents to survive, touring the country with her own 13-piece band and appearing in traveling productions of Good Neighbor in 1941 and as Sadie Thompson in a Brooklyn stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Rain in 1951. Her private life remained out of the tabloids, although her brief marriage, in 1940, to jazz trumpeter Jimmy Monroe, was reported. The two were separated by 1941 and divorced shortly thereafter.
From 1950 on, McKinney virtually disappears from the show-business record. There is a brief mention of her in a 1953 article recounting her appearances at several Hollywood parties some years earlier in the company of a wealthy Indian maharajah, the article still referring to her, nearly 30 years on, as the "star of the movie Hallelujah. " There is an elusive reference to a possible second marriage, in the early 1950s, but little else is known of McKinney's final years. She died in New York City on May 3, 1967. In a delayed tribute to her short, overlooked career, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame in 1978.
Although Nina Mae McKinney never reached the heights of fame accorded to African-American actors of later generations—Dorothy Dandridge , Sidney Poiter, Cicely Tyson , James Earl Jones, to name only a few—their careers would not have been possible without her. She was the first African-American actress to win wide acceptance and recognition among white audiences; and she was among the first of her contemporaries to legitimize African-American culture, first in Europe and, later, in films produced by and for black American audiences. Wrote Donald Bogle: "McKinney endured a fate that such talented black female stars as Dorothy Dandridge and Lonette McKee would later experience: after one dazzling performance… few, if any, important follow-up roles materialized. McKinney was left floundering…. [H]erfull potential was left untapped."
Annotated motion picture stills from the collection of the Prints and Photo Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
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Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York