For those who don't know, Nina Mae McKinney had the exoticness and sex appeal of Josephine Baker and The "It" of Clara Bow.
Nina Mae was indeed "The First Black Movie Star," the first black actress in starring roles who appeared in over 30 films (more then Horne or Dandridge), some films are considered lost, some are not available to the public. Her achievements in films was not only being the first black movie star and actress in Hollywood, but also the first black actress in starring roles in British films, television, and documentaries. Nina was also the first black women performer to become famous in her own country-- the U.S., then went on to become a success in Europe, and became one of the first most famous black internationally-known entertainers. Nina Mae didn't have to leave the U.S. to find glory like many of her contemporaries because when Nina Mae was in the U.S. she was a star, and during her tenure in Europe, she became a superstar. In Europe she became known as the "Good Time Gal" for she brought good times to audiences who overcrowded the theaters, cabarets, and cellars. Nina Mae surely could turn your gloom into gladness even just for a couple of hours. Nina Mae was an in your face type of performer who really could make you feel what she sung, dance or acted. Nina Mae put her heart, soul, and wonderful signature sense of humor into everything she did.
Nina Mae gave Blacks their first movie star to look up to, learn from, to lust and pattern themselves after, and gave hope to every other "colored" girl who was told "colored girls" could not be movie stars. During her time Nina Mae was admired and revered by people in "the business " and out-- by audiences and stars- Black and White. The Black Press and The White Press wrote about her every move from the beginning to the end. Nina Mae enjoyed her fame and fortune while she had it, and she didn't let racism or discrimination hold her back and she surely didn't feed on it like many other Blacks blaiming their hard luck on racism.
Nina Mae was so good at what she did, racism didn't hold her back, she couldn't help but make it because she had so many talents to her credit. Today however, Nina Mae McKinney is sadly very overlooked. Even though she was quite a figure in her time, today she's an unsung figure. It needs to be known that Nina Mae was a trailblazer who paved the way for all of the other Black screen and stage actresses that followed and if not that she should be remembered as an all-around first class entertainer who's contribution in jazz, blues, dance, recordings, films, stage, Harlem, Black history and Hollywood history is evident and admirable. Nina Mae was admired and respected in her time by her fellow performers, critics and fans because she wasn't just on stage to show off her talents but to make people happy, she worked hard to put over a good show and introduce "new" material, she loaned herself to audiences amazing them with her many gifts and whoever saw her never forgot her because she was a true entertainer/performer.
Unfortunately, Nina Mae has been overlooked and never credited for her contribution to the movie industry, which is one of the reasons I have created this website. Her life and career is a hard one to put together which is the reason why history has chosen to ignore her though its a hard task, its enriching and educating for classic movie fans, early entertainment fans and black history fans. One of early Hollywood's best kept secrets is that actresses patterned themselves after Nina Mae McKinney's acting techniques. The hands on hips motion which became Nina Mae's trademark, no one could do it quite like her, it became a popular gesture among white actresses after Nina Mae. Producers made some of their white stars use the same tactics Nina Mae was known for in their roles, which is very evident in the pre-code era films. A host of white actresses actually mimicked Nina Mae's style on the screen. In the late 1920s and early 1930s racism and discrimination was high, but for a little while, Nina Mae was treated as good as the white actresses were treated. Richard Watts Jr. called her "assuredly one of the most beautiful women of our time." It was almost as if Nina Mae became famous as many young white actresses had by being discovered by a movie maker who was taken by her beauty and talent but was unknown and made her an overnight movie star not too many black actresses got that type of treatment. For once Whites forgot skin color and judged by talent and beauty. At the height of her fame Nina Mae was being identified as " The Black Garbo " and
" The Brown Clara Bow"-(The resemblance of Clara Bow and Nina Mae McKinney is very evident) and most importantly she was considered "THE NEW FLORENCE MILLS," by the Black Community who was "The First Black Sensation," a highly respected entertainer of the stage. That was an honor to Nina Mae to be compared to her. Sure, Nina Mae had a similar style and the talent to match, but her combination of beauty and talent- was her own! Nina Mae and her talent was well-respected and considered equal to the talent of many white actresses. Her performances in movies were considered so unstereotypical that white critics nicknamed Nina Mae, The Brown Clara Bow and The Black Garbo. Having those titles bestowed on her attest to how good she was, because Whites wouldn't have compared her to some of their beloved white stars if she wasn't as good as them. Nina Mae was the first black actress to appear in prominent Hollywood magazines like Photoplay, Motion Picture Classic, New Movie Magazine Vanity Fair, Time, and Screen Play. She also appeared on the cover of dozens of European magazines.
Nina Mae's sometimes exotic, sometimes innocent persona (depends on the role or song she sings), sense of humor, glamour, vivaciousness, and talent made her a popular main attraction and headliner in swanky hotspot nightclubs and theaters in the 1930s and 1940s. Like most stars, Nina Mae impressed her fans with her expensive clothes, jewelry, cars, homes, and many love affairs, newspapers wrote about her every move giving fans an eyeful on her exciting adventures. She certainly lived like a star, which is why people wonder how a woman of such talent, beauty, and popularity could be virtually forgotten today, but she is, and there are many reasons why Nina Mae has been forgotten or has gone intentionally unmentioned. Putting it mildly it can be said that fate...the downside of show business, her name not being kept alive for the next generations, her leaving the business too soon, her career being left in the hands of partial, favoritism film historians, being robbed by the luck of the draw of who's remembered and who's not, not only as one of the most versatile actresses of early talkie Hollywood, but as one of the greatest black performers of all-time. For all of her accomplishements Nina Mae McKinney deserves to be remembered by the Hollywood community and the world just as much as the other well-known Black and White Legends. But in this business some are remembered, some aren't. Unfairly, some are remembered who didn't contribute as much as Nina Mae in Show Business.
As a fan once said of Nina Mae McKinney, " She was a bigger star and better actress than her obituaries and the little things they write about her in books let you know."
Nina Mae McKinney was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in June of 1912. Nina Mae grew up working along with her grandmother as a domestic on the estate of a local rich white, the family of Colonel LeRoy Sanders. Her own family lived and worked for that same family for many generations. Nina Mae was born to young teenage parents who left her in care of various older family members while they sought out a better life in New York. Childhood friends remembered Nina Mae as having a fun, humorous, and naughty disposition. Some said she was performing from the time she learned to walk and talk. She would " wow " and bring a smile to the faces of neighborhood on-lookers with her singing, hip shaking, bike-riding tricks, funny faces, and her curtain dances. She rarely attended school, but she always made a point of being there whenever her school was having a play and she would do anything to help -- build scenery, pull the curtains, or beg and borrow material for costumes. She would volunteer to play the old hags and witches that no one else wanted to play, just to be in the production. Nina Mae didn't care what role she played she believed she could bring any role alive, convincingly, and entertain. This trait of Nina Mae continue into adulthood - Nina Mae didn't feel she always had to play the beauty queen or glamour girl. She believed a real actress is able to play any role and she didn't let her beauty hold her back from playing roles that weren't so glamours, Nina Mae didn't care what part she play, she just wanted to perform. Nina Mae always stole the show no matter which role she played. Audiences often wondered where she had gotten all that lively acting talent and personality. They never seen such a thing in their part of the South. But the truth is that Nina Mae was just a natural, self-taught performer who as a child spent the little money she earned going to movies and buying movie magazines just so she could learn how to emote and pose like the actresses she adored. Nina Mae sure learned from the best, Nina Mae's personal acting coach (not really) was her favorite actress Gloria Swanson who Nina Mae studied every move on screen.
When Nina Mae was in her early teens her parents sent for her. She wasn't sad about leaving South Carolina because she knew New York was the one place where her dreams could become reality. The moment her feet touched the ground in New York she began scouting around to see where she could get started on her career. If an audition was within walking distance, off she went. She danced in various shows as a chorus girl and even did some recordings under an alias before landing a job as one of the featured dancers in "The Blackbirds of 1928." No one thought that the star of that show would end up being overshadowed by a unknown pretty, vivacious girl, third from the right in the chorus! King Vidor said "She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality." Because she was from such poor, humble beginnings no one ever thought that little Nina Mae's dreams of becoming a famous performer would come true. Although her dreams seem too big and almost impossible for a "colored" girl in the 1920s but Nina Mae believed in herself. Nina Mae was teased and constantly told colored girls can't be movie stars but Nina Mae didn't let that discourage her, in her mind she felt she could be the first and how right she was. She never let racism stop her. She knew if a person had what it took they'll make it soon enough, no matter what their race because Show Business is about talent and if people see that in you, you can't help but make it. Her attitude was she was going to make good. She was confident and others became confident with her. Nina Mae not only became a Broadway and Hollywood star and one of the few notable black performer in her own country, she traveled through out Europe becoming a superstar where she rubbed elbows and wined and dined with royalty. Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses bowed to Miss Nina Mae! Yes, to her credit, Miss Nina Mae went from Broadway star to Hollywood star, to European star, and back again! A movie star, singing star, dancing star, radio star were achievements established by few. It's hard to become known for one talent but Nina Mae was known for all those talents which in her time was quite an accomplishment for a woman.
Nina Mae McKinney's best known movie is "Hallelujah," which was made in 1929. Nina Mae wasn't King Vidor's first choice to play Chick , he wanted Ethel Waters, and another performer by the name of Honey Brown who almost starred in the movie. Honey Brown was actually filmed in various scenes but Vidor was unsure about Honey Brown, he felt she was missing something - beauty and spunk. Honey Brown was a toe dancer in same show that Nina Mae was discovered in "The Blackbirds of 1928." When Vidor saw Nina Mae performing on the New York stage and noticed that her strong magnetic presence out-shined that of the star, he knew he had found his "Chick" but Nina Mae wasn't in yet. King Vidor gave her the run around for a few months because he was still deciding and comparing Nina Mae and Honey Brown. King Vidor and Irving Thalberg - MGM Head and husband of Norma Shearer - debated back and forth on Honey Brown and Nina Mae playing the lead. Irving Thalberg was all for Nina Mae from the start. Irving felt Honey Brown was not attractive enough. King Vidor had Honey Brown and Nina Mae rehearse the Baptism scene. Nina Mae's emotional, realistic Baptism performance made up King Vidor's mind that she was the "Chick" he wanted portrayed. King Vidor was quite pleased with his fine selection. Nina Mae gave a thrilling, exuberant, breathtaking performance in "Hallelujah." Few actresses have captivated the camera as powerfully as Nina Mae McKinney in "Hallelujah." Her baby-face but wild beauty plays in irresistible contrast to her title character's leonine sexuality and fluid emotions; a man can't decide from moment to moment if he wants to save her from doom, build her a castle, or never let her out of bed. Nina Mae brought Chick alive with her own creations that she felt would contribute to the image and story powerfully. Nina Mae was the ultimate Femme Fatale, Seductress, and Vamp in "Hallelujah," using her feminine wiles to lure her willing victim...she tries to be good but the devil keeps getting in her and like all good bad girls, she eventually meets her well-deserved end but you can't help but feel sorry for her and think she was really a good girl but just gone wrong. Nina Mae brought Chick to life naturally and powerfully, there was a smile on audiences face when she smiled, when she sung and dance the audience wanted to join her, she also was the girl you wanted to hate, and then there wasn't a dry eye in the audience when she cried and when she met her tragic end, Nina Mae emotions controlled the audiences. Nina Mae was a perfect Chick. Could you picture anyone else playing the role? A lot of people say "how sad, wish she could have did more films of that caliber." Don't feel sad for Nina Mae, what Nina Mae did in "Hallelujah" would take dozens of movies for other actresses to display the art of acting, emotion, delivery and passion as well as Nina Mae, some never learned, most never had a signature movie, with Nina Mae it took one movie which was "Hallelujah" to become unforgettable. That's why Nina Mae was considered a great acting discovery by Hollywood, MGM couldn't help but admire her charismatic, sexy acting style. Nina Mae way of acting became a technique called the "McKinney Technique" which was studied in a few colleges and by other actresses in Hollywood. Producers, directors, and actresses naturally "borrowed" some of Nina Mae's on-screen tactics and creations and why wouldn't they - imitation is a form of flattery and plus Nina Mae's screen image could make one an overnight success if one is to copy, copy from the best. "Hallelujah" received rave reviews and many viewed the film more than once, some viewed the film to study Nina's acting style.
"It took no great effort to bring it out. She just had it, whatever you wanted, whatever you visualized, she could do it. Nina was full of life, full of expression, and just a joy to work with."- King Vidor.
King Vidor directed Nina Mae the same as he did with Marion Davies in a film a year before "Hallelujah" called "Show People" made in 1928. A lot of the same comedic charm Davies brought to the film was of the same style in certain comedic parts Nina Mae displayed in "Hallelujah." "Show People" was a silent film where faces and body language had to tell the story. Nina Mae displayed the same facial expression and body language to tell her story even in a talkie which was even more powerful. If you watch "Show People" and "Hallelujah"- you'll see a few similarities in face and body deliverance.
We probably wouldn't know Nina Mae! Nina Mae almost gave up her chance of a lifetime. She almost quit right in the middle of production of "Hallelujah" while filming down south because a white Southern laborer spectator told her "remember you are a nigger." Well, the incident motivated Nina Mae to prove herself more and more that she was a human being just like other people and worthy to be understood and somebody.
Nina Mae greatest achievement was she gave hope to every black girl that they could become movie stars. Nina Mae became the movie star young Black America hoped for and they truly could identify with her. They finally had someone to read in movie magazines about, pattern themselves and look to as a role model just like young whites had movie stars to look up to.
Nina Mae introduced the new black generation to the world or as it was called then "The New Negro Generation". Nina Mae like many other black performers were more then performers, they had to create a new positive image of Black America and reprsent their culture and people that would enhance their race. Nina Mae represented young black females as young, beautiful, strong, self-assured, full of life, full of love, as well as always ready for a song and dance - the same image that Clara Bow represented of white youths which proved their all American girls. Nina Mae showed the world that the blacks weren't sad or miserable, or just oridinary cotton pickers. Nina Mae broke the pre-conceived stereotypes that had been held by whites who had never been around blacks and also those stereotypes perpetuated by what white writers and directors chose to show to the world on screen of Black people. Nina Mae showed that a black girl was an all American girl too with the same wants, likes, dreams, joys, hurts, fears, and loves. After Nina Mae's profound acting was discovered, Hollywood saw that Blacks presence in movies were entertaining and accomodating. Classic Hollywood fancied having Blacks in movies to add spark and pep even though they were in a maid or servants outfit. Some movies were carried by Blacks, sometimes Blacks in white movies were the only enjoyable but of course it was kept secretive. Blacks contribution to classic Hollywood is very evident if one look beyond the maid and servant outfit. The maid and servant roles and outfits were a facade to keep black people in their places but the exceptional talent and culture never stayed in place.
Nina Mae always wanted love from people and she found that love through entertainment. It was Nina Mae's deepest desire to please the fans anyway she could. Louella Parsons, one of Hollywood's most famous columnists called Nina Mae " a beautiful Negro woman whose grace fills the screen and the audience."
Nina was untrained, but a natural in human emotions. She had presence and always a sense of humor and emotion -- that's what made her performances great. She had no need for acting school because her acting came from her heart. She put herself in her roles, made her roles come to life, she portrayed beautifully what a person would do in any given situation in her roles. Performers who had gone to acting school were unable to give as much of a performace and of themselves as Nina Mae. She gave her heart and soul in "Hallelujah." She proved that black actors really could act and were fully capable of handling starring roles and playing roles of people from all walks of life...not just black people. Nina Mae single-handedly changed the minds of those who thought Hollywood was only for white performers. After having seen Nina Mae's performance in "Hallelujah" the studios began to really think about using black performers in starring roles. Nina Mae opened the door for other blacks who wanted to be in movies. Nina Mae McKinney had the weight of the entire black community on her shoulders, because she was one of the very first black performers to portray blacks against the stereotype. Nina Mae knew her performance would be looked upon as a test to determine whether or not Blacks would be given further opportunities in movies, and her performance proved Blacks could be successful in movies if only given the chance and judged by talent not color or race. In "Hallelujah" Nina Mae showed the world that blacks were human beings, proved that they could act, hold an audience's attention, and make love to the camera. She gave White America the first glimpse of Black Life which is not at all completely different from their life. White audiences learned that Blacks love, laugh, smile, sin, cry, and hurt, just like any other human being.
But it's well deserved to say, Nina Mae wasn't only portraying Black life or the Black woman on screen. Nina Mae was playing her role as would a white actress or any actress. She wasn't just portraying a black woman but a fictional character, a woman she brought to life. No one at the time looked at her role as stereotypical, because many white actresses played the same type of roles...but they were called seductresses, vamps, femme fatales, so why are black women roles called stereotypical whores? Nina Mae portrayal was not one. Her role was a role all women could relate to, a story that would touch anyone, and a role and story actresses of all races have portray.
Nina Mae McKinney's performance in "Hallelujah" was electrifying to say the least. Some have said Nina Mae should have been nominated for Best Actress for her performance but Hollywood wasn't quite ready for that, however, King Vidor was nominated for best Director for best picture, so that says something. He wouldn't have been nominated if it wasn't for Nina Mae's wonderful performance, Nina Mae brought his vision alive and for that she should have been awarded for that much. Nina Mae may not have gotten nominated but she had Hollywood buzzing over her and she received plenty of attention, publicity, and praise from her fellow actresses and actors whom she admired for years. In her own words she said, " I was the most talked about actress in Hollywood."
Nina Mae in "Hallelujah" had many memorable scenes but the one most talked about scene and most memorable was the "Swanee Shuffle" dance, it was a favorite scene of many and still is. The dance was sen - or should I say "SINsational" to movie and to stage audiences when she performed the dance, it became her trademark dance. You could call it break dancing before there was break dancing mixed with the twist of hips, thighs, arms and head movement. Nina Mae was the ultimate hip master before Elvis Presley.
MGM saw a bright future for Nina Mae and signed her to a 5 year contract promising her that she had a great future in the movies. She was even congratulated by other stars from MGM and other studios. At the premiere of "Hallelujah" Nina Mae was seated with the likes of Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, King Vidor, John Gilbert and others. They were thrilled and amazed by her performance. The actresses at the premiere observed Nina Mae's performance closely, they noted her expression, allure, sex appeal, and magnetism and most assuredly "borrowed" from Nina Mae so they can perfect their screen performance like all actresses do. You better believe Norma Shearer paid close attention at the premiere. Nina Mae went to Hollywood functions and got to meet with Gloria Swanson (Nina Mae's favorite actress), Clara Bow, and John Gilbert. MGM promised her other starring feature films, some of which actually went into production. Unfortunately, MGM ended up taking a lot of heat for wanting to promote her and even though Hallelujah brought the studio money and Nina Mae success, it was felt that the world wasn't quite ready for a Black to be as big of a movie star as a White even if a Black is amongst Blacks. Even though Nina Mae was what one would call a overnight success and fit the "Beauty Code" and talent Hollywood wanted, the studio became reluctant to budget and build up a Black star as promised. As a result, most of the footage that had been filmed was never released and has since either been lost or destroyed. Nina's race was the reason why Nina didn't have continued success in Hollywood or become a superstar. It's very well known that if Nina was white with the same qualities, talent, and beauty nothing could have held her back from becoming one of the top movie stars, she would have been a star without hesitation. After "Hallelujah," her first film, Nina was already being applauded, raved about, receiving favorable reviews and she made many set up in Hollywood and take notice of her. For once Hollywood and movie audiences who saw her film forgot her color and race and noticed her, but many wouldn't take a dare and put prejudice aside and ignore the doubts of others to develop the well-deserving Nina Mae McKinney into the ultimate movie star as they done her white counterparts. Nina Mae would have fit in beautifully with her studiomates Norma Shearer, Anita Page, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Nina Mae's talent, sex appeal, and glamour, was up to par and she would have been a great rival and a well-loved movie star worldwide had she been given an equal, fair chance. Hollywood studios then didn't want to give the same amount of attention in developing, grooming, and making stars of blacks as they did whites. If MGM had took the time with Nina Mae, it would have been interesting to see the outcome. White actors, actresses, directors, and performers didn't mind mimicking and imitating Black culture and talent in their performances on stage and screen but didn't want to have to compete on the same level with them. Blacks at the time were known as the greatest entertainers and many white stars were becoming famous for adapting black entertainment into their repertoire, many credited black performers for influencing them, and many had "black teachers" who help them get their start, which isn't bad but the sad part is many blacks couldn't become successful with their own creations but others used black creations and became rich and famous. At the time it was felt if whites can do the popular black songs, dances, and slang it was no use for blacks.
Nina Mae did get roles that allowed her to shine. She appeared in THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN starring Bessie Love, in which Nina Mae's short, but exciting performance lightened up the otherwise bland movie. Nina Mae's appearance was the only memorable scene. Nina Mae received wonderful reviews for that film. Her next movie was outside MGM called "SAFE IN HELL," in which she played a hotel hostess/manager who's sassy, spunky, and sensual and she entertains the guests and is confidante to star Dorothy MacKaill. Nina Mae spices up everyone's life with her sexy disposition and hypnotizing crooning songs. Nina Mae's delightful performance and her teasing sex appeal gave the movie pep. Her part was enjoyable and she truly was apart of the film not just there to fill space or a stereotype. Now Nina Mae's part in this film was rare for a black even in the pre-code era, when it was made, but pre-code Hollywood was breaking all the rules. In this movie Nina embraces the whites as they do her. Nina and Dorothy MacKaill share intimiate, friendly moments and Nina obviously is "turning on" and teasing the white males in many scenes. It was no surprise the reviews were favorable to Nina Mae. Nina Mae also appeared in quite a few musical shorts "Manhattan Serenade," and Vitaphone shorts "Pie Pie Blackbird," "Passing the Buck" and "The Black Network" that were very entertaining and though they weren't full featured films, her irresistible delivery was unforgettable and her shorts were always winners. Audiences got a kick out of the musical shorts more than they did the feature films that were showed afterwards.
"Whenever Nina Mae McKinney is on screen you sit up, watch and don't blink for a half a second thinking you'll miss something" one movie critic said.
Nina Mae's stint at MGM lasted 5 years but she did most of her best work with other studios. Other major studios like 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia, Warner Bros. and RKO bided for Nina's contract but MGM wouldn't let her go. Others wonder why they wouldn't release her since they weren't putting her to work, but MGM often did that to their white stars also.
Nina Mae last film for MGM was "Reckless" which starred Jean Harlow. Nina Mae originally had a more filling, glamorous role, but before premiere, her scenes were cut. Complaints of Nina Mae being too sexy was the reason why her part was cut. Fans wondered what happen to Nina Mae's part. But the real reason why her scenes were cut was the studio felt a Black woman being as beautiful, glamorous and sexy as a white woman in a white movie wasn't something the dominant audience would want to see. It was too daring they thought. So her scenes were cut so the studio wouldn't catch heat and all that is now left of Nina Mae is a clip of her singing a little in the background and you see her as she walks away glamourously and beautiful. There are still pictures from the movie thata survived and you can see that Nina Mae had a much larger part and that she was very much a part of that particular scene. Nina Mae was so furious over her being cut that she left Hollywood and never wanted to go back, even when they called her for roles. Many newspapers and magazines queried, "Why would they spend all that money to bring her back from Europe to appear in "Reckless" then cut all her part." You can hardly see Nina Mae; but she had a small singing part, singing sixteen bars of a song maybe the song of her life. She sung it in a way that would bring tears to your eyes if you have a heart - "I Waste No Weeping I Just Keep Hoping For One Who's Hoping For Me" and then she disappears. Maybe one day her scenes will be found and revived. But for the few seconds she sung, she had the scene and it was her time to shine. MGM not leaving her part in wasn't surprising, the pre-code era of movie making was over. For example in "Safe In Hell," Nina Mae was full of sass and sex appeal. In the pre-code era you could get away with that but not after, films became more tougher particularly on Blacks and their positions in movies. In pre-code era, black actresses had more fulfilling parts but afterwards they were seen but not heard much.
Nina Mae was the hardest working woman in Show Business in the 1930's. Back and forth from Hollywood to New York, back and forth to Europe and the U.S., appearing in movies, top notch clubs and prominent theaters all over, starring in successful musical shows, and doing radio, Nina Mae was the main Black attraction in the 1930s. She was going where not too many other Black performers had gone before or after. Her attitude was that she should never let down her audience or her fans. Her non-stop schedule often kept her ill but Nina Mae believed that the show must go on no matter what.
Nina Mae had many other talents to go on so leaving movies didn't hurt her so, even though movies were Nina Mae McKinney’s claim to fame, it didn’t take long for her to become a star of the stage. Nina Mae McKinney's singing was dear to her as was acting. Her singing was mellow, sultry, soulful and easy on the ears. Her singing was as emotionally moving as her acting, and her dancing was just a product of the time. She always stole the show with her “Hip and Thigh Dance.” Nina Mae won stage audiences over fast. Audiences crowded wherever she performed. Nina Mae became a top draw in the U.S. and Europe.
Nina Mae eventually left Hollywood and New York and took her talent abroad conquering Europe and becoming an instant success. Many credited Nina Mae for being a performer of maturity who matured with each performance. Nina Mae grew as a performer on stage becoming more sophisticated, a lady of grace and poise, her wild, "youth must have its fling" image that she created and became popular with was an image she matured out of though she still maintain her fun, humor and collaborated it with her newly elegance. Nina Mae performed in popular cabarets, cellars, and prominent theaters becoming known as a show-stopper. In Europe, Nina Mae was billed her as "The Black Garbo". She got a rare chance to star in a revue where she was the only black lady backed by white chorus girls. Nina Mae wasn't stereotyped, she looked as beautiful and glamed up as the white chorus girls who backed her. Another fine achievement! In the 1930's many black performers were living the states to perform in Europe where they would have equality, fairness, and only their talent judged. There were many celebrated black stars in Europe but they weren't known in the states but in Nina Mae's case she was a star in the U.S. and her fame carried over with her to Europe making her even a bigger star. Nina Mae got a chance to reach her full potential in Europe. Nina Mae toured most of all of Europe. She became the most wanted performer and toast of London, Paris, Scotland, and Australia where her performances were sell outs. European critics reported time and time again that Nina Mae was tops of the American performers.
In 1932, Nina Mae gave a command performance before King George V, in London, England and among other royalty.
Nina Mae appeared in more films then any other black actresses in her era making her the most filmed woman of color. Nina Mae didn't stay away from movies long it wasn't long before she was receiving movie offers. European movie-makers wanted to take a chance on Nina Mae and her vast talents in non-stereotypical films. She was the first black performer to appear in a dozen European movies, T.V., and documentaries and European movie magazines weren't afraid to feature Nina Mae on their magazine covers; an achievement even Josephine Baker hadn't attain fully. One of Nina Mae's best films was " Sanders of The River " with Paul Robeson, Nina Mae received grand reviews. Audiences were taken when she sang "The Congo African Lullaby". It was a highlight of the movie! Nina Mae won honors for her performance in "Sanders of the River" and the film won a gold medal presented by the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers for the most significant picture of 1935. The Institute’s gold medal is comparable to that of Hollywood’s Academy Award. Paul Robeson in his time was the most popular, premier black actor in the 1930's and Nina Mae was the premier black actress of the 1930's so it was a thrill for particularly black audiences to see two popular black movie stars as leading man and woman in a film not degrading to themselves, their race, or the acting profession it was looked at as a step ahead for black actors and actresses.
Nina Mae didn't exactly steal Josephine Baker's throne in Europe but she gave Baker competition. Baker didn't like Nina Mae in her territory. Audiences were taken with Nina Mae fabulous stage performances and extravagant costumes and beauty. Most Black performers of that time were wild, all over the stage, rough and full of hotness. Nina Mae was one of the first elegant Black ladies who would step off the stage and sing to each and every one of her audience members. Without a lot of movement, she still could make her song and body language quiver. Audiences were use to seeing whites perform such a way but rarely a Black. Whites loved to see Blacks jumping, bouncing about and very rarely paid much attention to gracious Black performers but Nina among others introduced the hot but mellow approach that fascinated audiences. Newspapers and reviews created a rivalry between Josephine and Nina Mae because Nina was offered more movie roles and receiving as much attention than Josephine Baker and comparing their performance styles. Nina was called more of a lady then Josephine who's banana dance was frowned upon. Nina Mae was sexy with her clothes on.
During the 1930's, black female performers like Alberta Hunter, Josephine Baker, Elisabethe Welch, Valaida Snow, Adelaide Hall and now Nina Mae captured the European continent introducing their black idiom in songs, beauty, elegance and style. From 1931 to 1938, Nina Mae did some of her best work in Europe. Nina was a lady who made you look at her talent not her color. Everything wasn't about black to her. Nina Mae goal was to bring all together through song, dance, and movies - a simple but effective way Nina Mae gained acceptance. Nina Mae wanted to show that some aspects of her talent was colorless and cultureless. Nina Mae didn't want to just be a black talent but a versatile talent. Nina Mae wouldn't let anyone keep her in her place but keeping her just "black."
While Nina Mae McKinney’s beauty attracted audiences, it was her incredible talent and presence that truly captivated Europe audiences where ever she appeared on stage, records, radio and screen.
TO READ ABOUT NINA'S WORK IN EUROPE. GO TO THE HOMEPAGE AND CLICK ON NINA'S EUROPE YEARS.
Nina Mae's European success became another glorious chapter in her life. Nina Mae always knew she had fans back home in the Ole' U.S.A and she received many offers before the boat docked.
Nina Mae was welcomed back with open arms, some of which held contracts in them. Nina Mae barely stepped off the boat before reporters were asking "What's Next?" Phone calls and wires asking for her apperances on stage and screen followed. Even though Nina Mae has not been remembered as a important part of movie history, the Black Community never forgot her. She was able to put her art to work in independently produced Black movies that featured an all-Black cast, which were known then as "Race Films", these films were intended for Black audiences and were hits with Black audiences making many stars from the films and although Nina Mae did some of her best acting and received flattering reviews in such movies as "Gang Smashers", "Straight to Heaven", "St. Louis Gal" and "The Devil's Daughter" for the most part they were not viewed by mainstream audiences, nor were they taken seriously. Today, these Black-cast now known as Black Cinema movies are finally being discovered and are being appreciated by many. The roles Nina Mae played in those films were usually gun molls, detectives, night club singers, femme fatales, and fallen women. Only in black cinema could a Black play such roles. Nina Mae gave her best to these roles. The Black films Nina Mae appeared in would remind you of an Ann Sheridan/Humphrey Bogart/James Cagney type film. Nina Mae was as proud of appearing in these films as she was in Hollywood. She was an ultimate movie star to the Black community. The black cinema movies made at the time gave Blacks a chance to play roles, not "Black" roles but roles of human beings from all walks of life. They provided movie stars for black people, positive images, from dark to light, from cute to beautiful, from short to tall, from thin to big, blacks could always find someone who looked like you in Black Cinema. Black Cinema did everything from drama, comedy, Westerns, romance, and even Shakespeare. There were doctors, teachers, lawyers, you name it, Black Cinema gave blacks a chance to be free and to see their own truthfully as they were. Ones involved with Black Cinema made the type of movies they wanted instead of complaining about Hollywood they made movies the way they wanted and with a very little budget put together enjoyable movies and proved blacks could make movies in front of the camera and behind it.
Nina Mae's acting was quite different from the Black actresses of that era because Nina Mae's acting was colorless. Acting has no color and Nina Mae didn't act "black" as some felt they had to in the movies with their dialects and stereotypical manners. She didn't wear her color, she made people look at her talent, look at her as a human being first. Her culture was very much apart of her and she was very proud of it but at the same time she wanted to be given a chance to be versatile too. Nina Mae was great with emotions -- whether it was through body language, tears, a smile, a certain look, flashing of the eyes, hands on her hips, sweeping movements. Nina Mae was a very dramatic woman who could tell a story with her face!
Even though Nina Mae was quite successful in the Black Production Films, she longed to return to the Hollywood she once knew. She tried to rekindle her Hollywood career, and even though she was still young and had maintained her fresh beauty, Hollywood wouldn't budge for her. She was never really given the chance to be versatile in new Hollywood in the 1940's. She played maids in movies, "Together Again," "Night Train to Memphis," "Dark Waters," "Danger Street," "Copper Canyon," and "The Power of the Whistler," in many of these films her lines were stretched because of who she was but her roles, if one could call it that, weren't a challege or even real parts but Nina Mae took her maid roles and played them as an actress not someone "maiding" around. Nina Mae was one pretty, nice figured maid which was rare in Hollywood then, most maids were overweight and dark-skinned. Nina Mae loved being in movies, she continued to give each performance her all, no matter how small her role may have been. In the 1940's, Lena Horne was the new premier black movie star and Hollywood wasn't going to have two black movie stars; Nina certainly took a back seat. Nina's achievements have been overlooked by many, Lena Horne gets the credit of being the "first" to do many things when Nina was in fact the first to appear in magazines, be a black beauty, etc. It's like saying Joe Louis was the first black heavyweight champion when in fact Jack Johnson was. History stands to be corrected and always is! Yes, there is no doubt that Lena also experienced the good and bad in Hollywood, but because Nina Mae had already been there and done that, it was a little easier for her. Each accomplishments of Lena and Nina Mae of course made it easier for ones after them. Nina Mae set a standard in Hollywood that black actresses after her followed and that many still are. Their could of been two Black movie stars. But even in the 1940s, that would of been too much. Hollywood set a limit 1 Black movie star at a time. 1 every new generation seem to be their motto, even to this day. Nina Mae was Hollywood's chosen Black star of the 1930s, Lena Horne in the 1940s and Dorothy Dandridge in the 1950s. Was Hollywood scared? They knew Blacks were good, were they scared Blacks would take over, so they set a limit on Black movie stars? Blacks were dominant and the greatest in music and dancing, it's believe whites wanted to be dominant in films and kept blacks out of the way for their enhancement.
The Black community never forgotten Nina Mae, even when Nina Mae wasn't active in Hollywood. Blacks always knew her as the First Black Beauty and The First Black Movie Star and no one could ever take her place. The Black community and The Black Press always held a torch for her.
Always the trooper. Nina Mae always came back thanks to her multi-talents. In 1940s Nina Mae did her best work on stage and in nightclubs. In the 1940s, Big Band Swing was the thing, everyone seem to have a band. Always one to keep up with the ever changing world of "Show Business", Nina took over as bandleader for a failing band. Nina Mae groomed and energized the band and then took the band on the road touring the major states. Nina Mae's band got good reviews where ever it went. Nina Mae was named "America's Number 1 Swingheart". Nina Mae's charming, entertaining presence was the image that helped the band become popular. Nina Mae stayed with the band for a few years. Sadly they didn't record or film.
In 1941, Nina Mae had a leading role in the musical/comedy/drama play "Good Neighbor/Tan Manhattan." She was hailed by the producers and critics as "one of the best in the cast." Not since the days of "Shuffle Along" has as much interest been shown in a Black musical comedy as it being evinced in "Good Neighbor" and "Tan Manhattan." The highlight was the way Nina Mae drenches the torch song "Your Nickel for a Dime" in tears. It was one of the first plays written, produced, directed by Blacks.
Nina Mae McKinney's last years in the entertainment field were spent performing bit parts in Hollywood and theater work. Nina Mae's last hurrah in films was in "Pinky" from 1949 where Nina Mae had a short but significant performance. The role became another one of her best screen performances. In "Pinky," Nina played Rozelia who gets into a fight with Pinky and a white policemen. What made her part so powerful was because Nina Mae experienced incidents like her role before so it wasn't hard to bring out the anger. "Pinky" was another excellent role on her list of achievements and it brought renewed interest in her. Nina's last known performance was on stage in the popular play "Rain" playing Sadie Thompson. New York Times ran a photo and caption on her. Sadly, Nina Mae McKinney career came to a close in the mid-1950s.
Some have said her last years were spent in obscurity, but they were not. She left show business but was still around, waiting to be interviewed, waiting for recognition, waiting to be appreciated. To the historians, Nina is remembered as "performing" in the shadows of Josephine Baker and Lena Horne and credited with being Hollywood's first tragic black movie star, an amazing distortion if ever there was. Now many are seeing the mistakes made. Nina Mae passed away at a time when Movie Historians and people were going back in time and researching and telling the stories of the Golden Era of Hollywood and Harlem so had she lived, its no doubt, her story would of been told. One of Nina Mae's husbands in the 1970's was working to bring Nina Mae's story to the big screen but nothing came of it.
Was Nina Mae's timing off? Well, Nina Mae did more in movies then any other Blacks and had more of a chance to show her many versatile talents. Nina Mae was far from what one would call a one hit wonder. One thing that is a fact is that anyone who sees a Nina Mae McKinney performance becomes an immediate fan and wants to know more about her. Nina Mae McKinney's sexy, innocent but naughty, and vivacious acting style and image has become a main ingredient with actresses of all races in films whether they know it or not...the hands on the hips, flashing of the eyes, body-talking, facial expressions -- all of these gestures were perfected by Nina Mae McKinney which is unknowing to many but many use these techniques. Nina Mae truly was a walking work of art on stage and screen.
Kid U.S. Thompson, husband of Florence Mills - The First Black Stage Sensation, once said, "Nina Mae had the best chances of any colored girl." Many actresses, actors, and entertainers in their last years ended up broke with nothing to their name, but they were still remembered. It may have been that Nina Mae was just too talented for the time, or that her talent was greater than herself or partial film historians who still aren't ready to praise a Black alongside whites like Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Bette Davis and the likes. Maybe it was a combination of all. But all or nothing she deserves to be remembered and she is starting to get her justdo. It seems the Blacks who were extremely talented are overlooked. Nina Mae was known as a "triple threat" because of her multi-talents. It seems the Blacks who are remembered are the ones who let whites groom them and make them what they wanted, and catered to whites, and who "stayed in their place" as a "Black" singer, dancer, or actor/actresses. Nina Mae and Fredi Washington were women who wouldn't stay in their place, they proved more then once to be as good as anyone else. Nina Mae and Fredi Washington were two of the great actresses and greatest actresses of color, maybe that's why their not as much talked about because history has proven many times Blacks who are too good in a predominantly white business aren't fairly recognized and purposely overlooked if their talent is equal to a white, naturally Nina Mae and Fredi will not get their honor as highly as a white fore film historians don't want to put a Black above a white or alongside even if their deserving. Nina Mae and Fredi Washington were actresses, they wouldn't be just "black actresses" the way Hollywood wanted. To call Nina Mae a black actress is unfavorable because many times she stepped outside herself in her roles and played a human being not just Black women and her roles wasn't always about Black life. Why is the Black label always put on Black actresses? Is that the way whites and partial film historians keep Blacks in their place? No one calls white actresses, "white actresses," their called actresses. Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington deserve the same respect.
Most involved with keeping classic Hollywood alive are white film historians, they know of Nina Mae but don't say as much or don't research her thoroughly because she is not important to them because Nina Mae don't share the same race as them and the few black researchers don't want to research her throughly but show favortism to ones they favor and than write what "they think they know about her," most don't really want to find out about Nina Mae's and any other unsung talent, they just want to keep writing about ones who the world already know about and written about dozens of times, it's easier that way for them. So what, if Nina Mae gave only a few good film performances, for instance, Louise Brooks was a woman whose looked at as a divine actress who only appeared in a few films but she's remembered as the greatest of Silent and of Golden Era Hollywood. Clara Bow, known as the first screen sex symbol and more known for her wild, irresistible screen presence and tragic life is credited for contributing hugely to classic Hollywood and to the world though she only had a few good films too, many of her other movies are considred mediocre but she's still considered a major figure in Golden Era Hollywood. Nina Mae's and Fredi Washington's had a few excellent film performances and their contributions are equal to Brooks and Bow but yet their not hailed alongside them yet. Many have been forgotten in history who've done a lot but were rediscovered and introduced again and became a legend because of a brave one willing to correct history, Nina Mae soon will be one of those unsung talents. There's no real reason for her not to be majorly remembered today, her work isn't unattainable.
Those who've seen Nina Mae work will tell you that had Nina Mae McKinney been around today, she would be considered a Show Biz Genius. I won't say she was before her time because even today's actresses and entertainers aren't as good, many lack charisma, personality and today it's about sex, and showing off the body. Today you can't tell the difference between real performers and strippers. Blacks stars of today have more starring roles but none of them really showed excellence and magnetic presence as Nina Mae did in "Hallelujah," "Pie Pie Blackbird" "Sanders of the River" "Gang Smashers" "Pinky" and others. Nina Mae was apart of the greatest era of Black entertainment, a time when performers were imaginative, creative, and brought features and ideas that became role models and standards that made Show Business and Hollywood what it is today. Nina Mae was apart of a time when Blacks were called the greatest performers. She was one who contributed to that hugely.
Yes, Nina Mae had the full Hollywood treatment alright -- the good and the bad treatment alongisde Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and Fredi Washington, they all had their good and bad but one thing is for sure, they were the firsts and proved all myths and doubts wrong thrust upon them. Some may like to start some type or rivalry between these 4 actresses and put ones on pedestals and say who's better and who's not and who done more and that is ignorant, they all contributed to movie history by giving performances to be seen again and again and with their own versatile approach to acting and in their original images they created they showed the differences in a black woman but at the same time to show how equally they all are, they all got the same type of cruelty from white Hollywood. There are many white actresses remembered and praised whether they had "it or not" because whites will make sure their stars are remembered, Blacks should do the same whether Hollywood stars or Black Cinema stars. Just enjoy all the influential talents these wonderful ladies left behind and the high bar they set that even black actresses today haven't reached. The racism all these black actresses endured motivated them to do their more finest. Their sorrow and triumph made it easier for the next generation of black actresses to have chances.
Whether Nina is a great actress or not, no one can deny that the girl had a presence, personality, magnetism and talent. Many are great actresses but unlike Nina lack natural human emotions and personality. Nina Mae's image on screen was quite different...she was fun, exciting, funny, tempting...her style of acting was quite different from the sad, pitiful portrayals of Blacks on screen in those times. Also Nina was attainable, a natural for Blacks, she wasn't aloof or trying to act "white" as some other Black actresses were labelled as. Nina's rich culture was always present without being stereotypical.
Nina Mae's work in music, entertainment and movies can speak for itself. Despite what happened to her in her last days and despite what she didn't do...look at all she did do. That's the problem when others talk about black actresses, they talk about their downfalls instead of their many achievements. People are so use to talking and hearing about Blacks in a sad way, always telling a sad story about them...(another stereotype) that many wouldn't believe of how many Blacks had good lives and careers and Nina Mae surely wouldn't say she had a hard luck life. If you knew Nina in her time, you would know she wasn't a tragic mulatto or a one hit wonder.
Another very sad fact is that when film books have included her, the information about her is sparse and generally the same. Why, even Black History and Entertainment books have failed to mention her contribution to the entertainment industry, Hollywood and the black community! No one has really took the time to resarch Nina Mae in movie magazines, black newspapers, though many are dead who worked and knew Nina Mae, there is still a wealth of information through magazines and newspapers of her time to let anyone know who she was and what she was. Believe me, it may be hard to research Nina Mae but it's a great treasure. Most researchers today just write what they "think" they know about Nina. Don't believe everything you read! With this website, I intend to correct this error in film history. I will be sharing items from my own Nina Mae McKinney collection. My collection includes personal photos, movie stills, magazine covers, clippings, paintings, magazine articles, quotes, reviews, and testimonials which will tell the story and reassure you that Nina was no one-hit wonder as she is described in many books. Pictures are worth a thousand words!
I have to say Nina Mae McKinney is getting her recognition for many are discovering her and becoming fans in a big way. Some are shocked they haven't heard of Nina Mae and they luckily discovered her without knowing who she was. Nina Mae is featured in film books now and classic Hollywood photography books. More of Nina Mae films that were lossed were found and released, hopefully more will. Nina Mae movies are shown on Turner Classic Movies. I have to say Nina Mae's name and contribution is becoming more visible in The Golden Era of Hollywood more and more everyday.
Anyone who sees the lively, scintillant Nina Mae...they see true talent and they never forget it. Some films Nina appeared in wouldn't qualify as the greatest films ever but but Nina Mae always keeps one watching.
Some who actually took the time to research are shocked that Nina Mae had so many opportunities in films and on stage in her era. Well when your as good as her, you can't help but make it, color or nothing. Remember, the hardness drove many Blacks to greatness. Some say it was luck, well if it was luck, luck picked her because she deserved it.
This website is designed to whet your appetite -- to get you ready for a book about Nina Mae McKinney. Hopefully this site will make you a Nina Mae fan if you aren't one already, and if you are one, it'll make you a more dedicated fan. Continue to check back often because I will be adding new photos, magazine articles, quotes, and tidbits.
If you have a comment to make about the site please leave a message in the guestbook or email me. Thanks for visiting. I hope you've enjoyed your stay.