Summer Madness | Nina Mae McKinney

In honor of TCM and their “Summer Under the Stars” series, we launch our companion series, Summer Madness. The series will spotlight the achievements and films of one Black actor, daily throughout the month of August.

Day 4

Nina Mae McKinney (June 13, 1912 – May 3, 1967) was an actress who worked internationally during the 1930s and in the postwar period in theater, film and television, after getting her start on Broadway and in Hollywood. Dubbed “The Black Garbo” in Europe because of her striking beauty, McKinney was one of the first African-American film stars in the United States, as well as one of the first African-Americans to appear on British television.

Before Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Elizabeth Taylor or Rita Hayworth. Even before Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, and yes, even Hattie McDaniel, there was “The Black Garbo,” McKinney. She snagged her career breakthrough role as ‘Chick’ in King Vidor’s first all-Black 1929 talking picture Hallelujah. After the release of the film, McKinney signed a 5-year contract with MGM. 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.

While touring Europe as a cabaret singer, McKinney was cast in the film, Sanders of the River, alongside Paul Robeson. Unfortunately for her, it was still difficult navigating Hollywood’s racially biased film infrastructure, McKinney’s last known significant part was a supporting role in Elia Kazan’s 1949 film Pinky, where she played a prostitute named Rozelia.

She died of a heart attack in New York to little or no fanfare in 1967, at the age of 54. While her career was largely unsung, the stunning actress and singer still managed to carve out a niche for herself, while helping pave the way for those notable Black actresses who came shortly after her, enabling them to continue knocking down doors in an industry that often didn’t (and doesn’t ) value or consider Black film actresses palatable enough for mainstream audiences, or viable enough to be placed in starring roles. #BlackClassics #SummerMadness #McKinney

Recommended films:
Hallelujah (’29)
Sanders of the River (’35)
Gang Smashers (’38)
The Devil’s Daughter (’39)
Pinky (’49)

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