Nina Mae McKinney

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The name Nina Mae McKinney sounds like a combination of Georgia and Glasgow. This historic performer's grandparents were slaves, her entire career nothing if not a statement of the possibilities for her…
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The name Nina Mae McKinney sounds like a combination of Georgia and Glasgow. This historic performer's grandparents were slaves, her entire career nothing if not a statement of the possibilities for her race when allowed a status above that of enforced laborer. While McKinney's presence on recordings is slight -- she's a buried treasure to be found by dedicated shoppers -- her career in film becomes increasingly accessible due to reissue mania. One of her most important credits gets right to the heart of listening to anything and everything: she was the first black actress to perform in a sound movie, Hallelujah! in 1929. For this as well as her many other accomplishments, McKinney became a member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

Hallelujah! presents vivid evidence of the singing, acting, and dancing talents this performer, sometimes credited as just plain Nina Mae Kinney, made use of throughout her career. She even seems to have made an impression on the folks in her hometown of Lancaster, SC, who fondly recall her childhood impersonations of ghosts and goblins. McKinney spent part of her childhood up north, in Philadelphia, then moved even a few hours further to New York City to find work as a dancer. The Blackbirds of 1928 revue became her big break. Her other films include Safe in Hell, Reckless, The Lost Lady, In Old Kentucky, Dark Waters, and Night Train. Basically, however, her relationship with Hollywood was strained. The studios wanted chubby black actresses who would whip up batches of pancakes in a kitchen, not a black, sultry temptress. She had to find other assignments and from the early '30s she toured frequently as a solo act, billed as the "Black Garbo" and often accompanied by fine pianist Garland Wilson. After fronting a touring band in the '40s, McKinney moved to Greece for much of the '50s and '60s; her nickname there was "Queen of Night Life." She had only been back in New York City a short time before her death in 1967.