Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Black Hollywood History: Nina Mae McKinney

Before Halle, Dorothy, Lena, and even Hattie was Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967), the first black actress to perform in a sound movie. Originally from Lancaster, SC, this singer, dancer, actress began her career at 16 when she performed in the chorus line of Blackbirds (1928), a Broadway play. That performance earned her a role as "Chick" in Hallelujah (1929), Hollywood's first all black musical.

After Hallelujah, she was offered a five year contract with MGM studios. But her budding career never really blossomed in the racist Hollywood system of the time; she received small roles in only two movies. Neither of which ever made it to the big screen. So Nina left Hollywood for Europe where she found true fame touring with pianist, Garland Wilson, acting opposite Paul Robeson in two films, and touring alone in the 30s and 40s. She also starred in several American Independent films, such as Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932). Her performances were so well received by audiences she was given the titles "Black Garbo" and the "Brown Clara Bow."

Here's a scene from Pie, Pie Blackbird. Featured also in this clip are the very young Nicolas Brothers and Eubie Blake and his Orchestra.

In the 40s she toured with her own jazz band after marrying Jazz musician, Jimmy Munroe. Her last film was Pinky (1949). The 50s and 60s found her living in Greece where she became known as the "Queen of Nightlife." She returned to the states in the late 60s and resided in New York, where she died.

African American Registry.com
Nina Mae Mckinney Fan site

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