For better or worse, the narratives we often hear about, very rarely include actress Nina Mae McKinney. Referred to as “The Black Greta Garbo”, McKinney is reportedly the first Black film actress to grace the silver screen in small but notable parts, and has the distinction of also being the first Black actress to appear on British television.
Born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina, Nina got her start as a 16-year-old dancer in the chorus line on Broadway, in Lew Leslie’s production Blackbirds of 1928; a performance that resulted in her snagging the part of ‘Chick’ in King Vidor’s first all-Black 1929 talking picture Hallelujah, as a last minute replacement for Ethel Waters or Honey Brown, who were both being considered for the role. While Hallelujah wasn’t a massive commercial success, it still garnered enough attention to put Nina Mae McKinney on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) radar; the film studio signed her to a 5 year contract. But as was par for the course for most Black actresses, her career fell prey to the contentious racial politics in the U.S. during that time. Despite contracting McKinney, MGM was reluctant to cast the beautiful starlet in feature films, placing most of her scenes on the cutting room floor while using her singing voice to dub over Jean Harlowe’s.
Much to her dismay, the actress could only get roles in bit (stereotypical) parts through other studio productions, so moved to and toured throughout Europe, most notably to France and the UK, where she found success as a sought after cabaret singer and starred in the British based movie Sanders of the River, alongside Paul Robeson- (who later condemned the film after discovering it’d been re-edited during post-production, to the favor of white imperialism).
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