When we are asked of jazz, blues, and performing legends, the names Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughn come to mind and roll off our tongues without contemplation.
When we think of beautiful Black movie stars of classic Hollywood, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge immediately come to mind.
But the name "Nina Mae McKinney," who was a famous star before either one of them (in fact Lena was 12, and Dorothy was 6, mere children, Nina a child herself, started performing at 14, a star at 16) is seldom mentioned in notable resources. Nina was named "the most beautiful woman of her era" "one of the greatest entertainers" and "a great acting discovery." Not many black actresses prevailed in films as Nina Mae - the most filmed black actress in her time.
For quite a few decades, Nina Mae McKinney had been omitted from Classic Hollywood (even the most prominent jazz and movie historians know little or nothing about her) and most importantly she's been omitted from Black Entertainment History, but that's changing. In her time Nina Mae McKinney introduced "Black Beauty" from inside and out to the big screen. Even white publications that was usually discriminative towards black actresses couldn't deny Nina Mae's appeal, talent, and beauty. She was the personification of the new "Young Black America" and "The New Negro woman" - beautiful, full of life, full of love, raw, wild and always ready for a song and dance. Nina Mae in her time became one of the most sought after Black actress and entertainer, rivaling superstars Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters. But along with them she helped show the versatility of black entertainers and helped open the doors for black performers.
Her winning combination with audiences was her...Youthful Beauty...Warm, Velvet, Crooning, Soulful Singing...Exciting Hip-Shaking Dances...Versatile Acting...Vivacious, Glowing Personality...Magnetic Eyes...Charismatic Presence and...Ready Smile. Those qualities elevated her to become the most celebrated Black female star in America and Europe and becoming the first black woman to appear in and on covers of leading magazines in the U.S. and in Europe. Nina Mae McKinney left many memorable performances through her multi-talents still thrill people today.
Nina Mae McKinney went where no Black woman before her had gone before. She was said to have had the best chances of any "Colored" girl of her time. She was one of the few Blacks allowed an opportunity to display her art on screen and stage without much stereotype. Perhaps, Nina Mae McKinney's greatest achievement was giving black girls hope that they too could be movie stars when they were told they couldn't, like she was told, but she proved all wrong. Plus she created an image that blacks could be proud of and whites could enjoy.