1929. It was the end of an era! Movie making in Hollywood, no longer in infancy, was now at the toddler stage in Tinseltown! Talking pictures had just made its debut on the screen, and something else new and phenomenal happened in the film industry; a major film studio released one of the first Hollywood films starring an all black cast. MGM introduced Hallelujah, and Hallelujah introduced the world to its first black film star & sex symbol, Miss Nina Mae McKinney. It was King Vidor's (Hollywood's top director) first talking picture. More than a mere "race film", Hallelujah was a top-notch Hollywood production that (despite the racial stereotypes) still holds up very well today, indeed!
Mckinney was initially spotted in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 as a not so sweet 16-year-old chorus girl. A year later, she was starring as the high-strung, high-yella seductress Chick, in the Vidor film.
Bright-eyed, beautiful, and energetic, McKinney's performance encapsulated the era's image of the new aged flapper. In a short-skirt (and still with a little baby fat) McKinney became the toast of Hollywood that year with a radiant portrayal of a bad-girl femme-fatale who leads a good church goin' black boy down the path to Hell. The film was billed as an "all singing, all dancing, all colored" musical, but it was also a sensitive and poignant slice of life that cut straight to the core of rural black America. Hallelujah was a moving film that earned the director an Oscar nomination in 1930, and many feel that had things been diffent in our society, McKinney would have certainly garnered a nomination for Best Actress.
Nina Mae McKinney had all the right stuff in the early 1930's to be a major player. She had the support and backing of King Vidor, and other early Hollywood luminaries such as mega-producer Irving Thalberg. But Mckinney discovered early what actress Fredi Washington would find in just a few short years, and what would haunt Lena Horne in the 40's, and what almost destroyed Dorothy Dandridge in the 50's; that after one landmark success as a black actress in Hollywood, there would be no more comparable follow-up roles.
She was groomed and given the star treatment, but was eventually relegated to bit roles in films. Still, McKinney always transcending that little bit she was given. This was particularly the case in 1935's Reckless, starring film goddess Jean Harlow. McKinney's three minute cabaret scene with Harlow is said to have been particularly sizzling, but her now legendary scene ended up on the cutting floor. All that remains now is a movie still (above) that offers only a small clue to the excitment of the original scene. Ironically, in the surviving print of the film, McKinney can be glimpsed walking away in defeat at the end of the very jumbled scene in question. She was billed in the credits, but it was to be the last straw for Nina Mae. She did what so many other disillusioned African American stars did before (and after) her. She went to Europe!
As the Black Garbo, she took the continent by storm with glamour, wit and star power! She graced the covers of numerous magazines, and cultivated a new legend as a high living movie star by wearing fabulous clothes, jewels and by dating a Maharaja. She made recordings that are now rare collector's items, and appeared in European films (which are said to be held in a film institute in England) that have been unseen by the general public for years. It is said that McKinney worked in close to 30 films, many of which have been lost or damaged.
Through it all, McKinney vowed never to return to America, but she eventually did. She was briefly married to Jimmy Monroe (who eventually left her and married Billie Holiday). This is noteworthy because it's said McKinney was addicted to drugs at this time, and when Monroe left for Holiday, SHE too first became addicted to drugs.
McKinney soon made a few low budget B-movies for black audiences like Gang Smashers aka Gun Moll. No matter, Black America always loved her best. Earlier appearances in black musical short films like Pie Pie Blackbird, and The Black Network (both with the Nicholas Brothers) proved that much. It is in such films that McKinney is shown at her best. They offer a glimpse into how things could've, should've, and would've been had she experienced a level playing field in Hollywood.
Nina Mae Mckinney's life was not exactly too happy as she experienced numerous failed marriages & relationships, major career disappointments, and alcohol & drug abuse. Following WWII, she left the states once again to work and live in Europe. In 1960, after many years in Greece, she returned home yet again, her glory days far behind her. Not much has been recorded about Mckinney's life in obscurity, but it is known that she was working as a maid by 1967 (the same year she died broke and forgotten at age 55).
In 1978, Nina Mae McKinney was inducted into the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame. Today, there are many webpages devoted to keeping McKinney's legend alive. I am proud to join the ranks of many who look back in wonderlove to a pioneering black female star, a true bronze Art Deco fim goddess!