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Nina Mae McKinney, Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star, Is Being Recognized At New York's Film Forum

Nina Mae McKinney, Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star, Is Being Recognized At New York's Film Forum

She's getting the flowers she's always deserved. 

The Film Forum is paying homage to Nina Mae McKinney, Hollywood's First Black Movie Star. According to The Hollywood Reporter, New York's Film Forum is running a retrospective of Nina Mae McKinney films, dedicated to providing viewers with insight into the actress's pioneering career. 

McKinney began her career in Harlem clubs and on Broadway, mimicking roles that were part Kewpie doll, part vixen, praised by Black Film Archives creator Maya Cade as "one of the most dynamic actresses to ever grace the screen." She was so good that at just 17-years-old, MGM signed McKinney to a long-term contract and began marketing her as one of the studio's stars, despite roles for actresses of color being few and far between. 

In 1929, McKinney made her feature debut in the all-Black musical Hallelujah!, where she starred as a tongue-in-cheek Jazz flapper caught in a deadly love triangle. She continued her roles, starring in nearly 20 films throughout her career, including William A. Wellman's 1931 thriller Safe in Hell. She played a hotel owner, one of the film's few respectable roles. She also played an African tribal chieftess alongside Paul Robeson in the 1935 film Sanders of the River. McKinney continued bringing her acting and singing talent to the main screen, participating in several "race movies," independent films for Black audiences. Her last credited role came in the 1949 film from Elia Kazan, Pinky, the story of a young Black nurse who passed for white. 

In later years, McKinney was still being published in magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Hue, profiling her work in a regular "Where Are They Now?" fashion. In 1967 McKinney passed away at the age of 54, her death certificate describing her as a widowed domestic servant. The acknowledgment of her legacy and her contributions is an attempt to right that wrong in what Cade calls "the least McKinney deserves. 





The Forum will run five of McKinney's films and two shorts, Pie Pie Blackbird and Black Network, which she made with the Nicholas Brothers, a famous Black dancing team. Nina Mae McKinney: Hollywood's First Black Movie Star opens up with a 35mm remastered print of King Vidor's all-Black musical and McKinney's debut, Hallelujah!

Nina Mae McKinney: Hollywood's First Black Movie Star runs from November 10th to November 30th at The Forum. 

Photo Courtesy of Alamy/History and Art Collection