When you think of iconic Black women actresses of the past, you probably think of Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll and Hattie McDaniel. But one of the first major Black female actresses you should know more about is Nina Mae McKinney. The screen siren may not have received many accolades or even made many films over the course of her career, but her work still paved the way for Black actresses and singers who came after her. Check out five things you should know about legendary entertainer Nina Mae McKinney.
She Left School at Age 15 to Pursue an Acting Career
Nina always had a passion for performing. While living in South Carolina with her aunt after her parents migrated to New York for work, she was at one point performing stunts on bikes to get applause. After starring in school plays and catching the acting bug, Nina decided to ditch school at 15 and go to New York where she ended up back with her parents. From there, the beauty worked on Broadway, namely the musical Blackbirds in 1928 with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. It was in that show that Nina caught the eye of director King Vidor.
She Was the Lead Actress in One of the First All-Black Musicals, Hallelujah
King Vidor was putting together his first sound film, a musical featuring an all-Black cast, which was one of the first of its kind. Hallelujah was about a struggling sharecropper and his complicated relationship with a woman named Chick. After seeing Nina in Blackbirds, Vidor cast her as Chick, a role the African American Registry said was seen as the original Black Temptress, “half woman, half child.” Still, Nina gained a lot of acclaim for her work in the film as well as praise from Vidor, who garnered an Oscar nomination for directing the picture.
She Was the First Woman to Get a Major Studio Contract
Following the success of Hallelujah, McKinney was offered a five-year contract with Metro-Golden-Mayer (MGM) in 1929. Unfortunately, it seemed as though roles were few and far between for the star once her deal was signed. The only ones sent her way seemed to be bit parts and her work in the film Reckless, in 1935, was almost entirely cut. After that, Nina was discouraged and wanted to be done with Hollywood. While she may have been the first Black woman to sign a major studio deal, as the New York Times pointed out, it wasn’t until the likes of Lena Horne that a Black woman was able to really make moves and have an impact with such a contract.
She Left Hollywood for Europe
Over playing small roles, Nina hit the road and toured Europe, particularly France and the U.K. She not only was able to get a few more acting roles (making her one of the first Black women to be featured in a British film), but billed as the Black Greta Garbo due to her beauty, Nina also ended up being a popular cabaret singer. She even had her own TV special on BBC. However, as World War II approached and Germany invaded Poland, Nina decided it was the safest bet to head back to the States.
She Reportedly Ended up Working as a Maid
When she returned to the U.S., Nina found herself only really obtaining stereotypical roles, including playing maids and prostitutes. She tried to get back to singing, even taking part in a jazz band after marrying musician Jimmy Monroe. Unfortunately, they divorced in 1938, her last film was Pinky in 1949, and after trying to return to Europe to live in Athens, Greece, she came back to New York. Nina died there in 1967 of a heart attack to little fuss in the press.
According to Coffee Rhetoric, via the book African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility 1900-1960, McKinney ended up spending the last years of her life working as a “domestic,” or maid, for “private families.”