Lessons in Black History – Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney – Often referred to as “the Black Garbo” or “the Colored Garbo,” Nina Mae McKinney was the first black leading women in mainstream Hollywood. Nina (pronounced Nine-ah) was born in South Carolina in 1913, and moved to New York while still in her teens. She worked as a dancer when legendary director King Vidor discovered her, and cast her in his 1929 film Hallelujah!. She was one of the first black actresses signed to a studio contract (if not the first), but MGM never really used her that well. She was loaned out to other studios, mostly for B-movies and low budget “black cast” pictures like Gang Smashers and The Devil’s Daughter. She also co-starred opposite Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River. Her career in Hollywood and the United States never really took off, and she spent many years working Europe, primarily performing in live cabarets. Nina’s final film performance was an uncredited role in the 1950 film Copper Canyon. She passed away 17 years later at the age of 53.


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