Critics’ Conversation: Nina Mae McKinney, a Star of the Early Talkies, Burned Bright and Fizzled Too Soon

Looking at Film Forum’s series devoted to the Black performer, THR critics find a radiant talent and a particularly American story of thwarted opportunities and unfulfilled promise.

In today’s parlance, Nina Mae McKinney, a performer of incomparable magnetism and impressive versatility, would be called “Black famous.” Although she burst onto the silver screen in a landmark feature, MGM’s Hallelujah, mainstream stardom eluded her. Hallelujah was one of the first studio pictures with an all-Black cast, and its director, King Vidor, was a leading filmmaker in the nascent industry. McKinney was lauded as the first Black movie star, and it seemed the sky was the limit for this triple-threat actor, singer and dancer. But with no Black filmmakers in its studio system, Hollywood had no particular compulsion to build and sustain a connection to a Black audience.

With a few key exceptions, most of McKinney’s subsequent screen work was in so-called race films, created outside the studio system and marketed to Black Americans, but without the distribution clout to compete with Hollywood. Just as many of those long-forgotten films have been rediscovered in recent decades, McKinney is receiving her overdue center-stage moment. In 2019, The New York Times paid tribute to her in its “Overlooked” series of obituaries. And now, thanks to a monthlong program at Film Forum that kicked off Wednesday with the 35mm restoration of Hallelujah, New York film fans can experience a good portion of McKinney’s movie performances on a big screen.

Sheri Linden: Perhaps the most astounding thing about Nine Mae McKinney’s 1929 screen debut, as the scheming Chick in Hallelujah, is that she was only 16 when she made the film. She connects with the camera and the audience with remarkable confidence and boundless charisma. There are so many layers of performance in the role, and McKinney keeps us tantalized and guessing every step of the way.

She plays a con artist who seduces a sharecropper turned preacher (Daniel L. Haynes), finds religion, backslides and ultimately repents. Along the way she pouts, vamps, cajoles and takes no prisoners — not to mention that she sings and dances up a storm. For Chick, and for Haynes’ Zeke, religious ecstasy and sexual fervor are often indistinguishable. McKinney holds nothing back and yet is fully in control. How can you not love a character who, after subduing her former partner in crime with a fireplace poker, declares “That’s what I’m doing to anybody that stands in my path to glory”? How can you not wish McKinney had gone on to enjoy the career that this performance so clearly signaled was hers for the taking?

Lovia Gyarkye: Absolutely! The magnetism and charm she possessed in Hallelujah are so rare; it’s hard to believe she was so young. There are a couple of scenes that really affirm the kind of talent she had. Take the moment we first meet Chick, shaking her hips and swaying her arms whilst surrounded by a completely captivated audience. She shuffles around the circle they’ve formed, tapping her feet and sneaking glances at different men. Her movements are effortlessly coquettish. But when Zeke tries to grab her, she snaps back, right? Suddenly she’s less demure. There’s a moment, just after she cracks a joke about how poor he is, when she dramatically motions her head in the direction of the audience and almost rolls her eyes. You realize she’s not simply an object of the men’s gaze but a self-aware participant in this exchange.

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Courtesy Film Forum

One thought I keep returning to, and I hadn’t even realized this until I read parts of Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film, is that McKinney’s self-assuredness allowed her to imbue Chick with some three-dimensionality. Bogle talks about the mixed reception for Hallelujah upon its release. White audiences and critics loved it, while Black viewers found its stereotyping offensive and outdated. Through dynamic facial expressions — like the wide eyes of concern or a sly smile when she’s scheming — McKinney gives us a sense of Chick’s motivations and how they shift. These choices made me feel more invested in a narrative that I otherwise struggled to get into.

Linden: Did you find the narrative hard to get into because of the core conflict — the idea of a hissable city girl corrupting a country boy — or because of the wider picture? Vidor, a white Southerner, apparently went to great lengths (for the time) to ensure that he was capturing an authentic depiction of the Black South; according to Bogle, there was at least one consultant on the payroll to provide a reality check. The location shooting in Tennessee and Arkansas offers a lived-in sense of place, along with such documentary details as cotton gins in action. But as to the plantation workers who worked those gins, this is a story only partly told. The absence of white characters isn’t itself a problem, but the movie’s self-contained world of poor-but-happy sharecroppers erases powerful context — i.e., the systems of racism and economic exploitation that created this separate-and-unequal reality.

Gyarkye: I actually found Hallelujah’s core character conflict interesting, and I think part of my struggles can be attributed to watching the film, which was released in 1929, in 2021. I was hyperaware of its colorist and misogynistic undertones despite being invested in many of the performances. It’s hard not to wonder about the implications buried in Zeke’s romantic pursuits: Chick, who is light-skinned, comes across as a prize to be won while Missy Rose (played by the blues singer Victoria Spivey) is the responsible (and disposable) choice. It’s one of those situations, I suspect, where even though the film’s all-Black cast makes it a historic Hollywood production, the overall vision is racist.

Linden: The world of Hallelujah is a kind of alternate reality, one with an undertow of unasked questions. A few years later, McKinney would topline a short that offers its own alternate reality, but in a comic vein. (No matter how clearly Hallelujah announced that a star was born, shorts would be her mainstay for much of her remaining years in Hollywood.)

The Black Network (1936) revolves around a Black-owned radio broadcasting company. As one of its top musical acts, McKinney has a very modern glamour. And again, that self-confidence! She’s a performer playing a version of herself, a woman who knows her talent and her worth. There’s a giddy, infectious sense of joy to this music- and comedy-driven 20-minute film. And in the midst of all the hubbub, there’s an almost breathtaking poise and stillness to McKinney. You can feel how ready she is for bigger things.

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The Black Network
Courtesy Film Forum

Gyarkye: The Black Network, which came out a few years after another Roy Mack-directed Vitaphone short, Pie, Pie Blackbird, does indeed present a McKinney who is primed for more. Her performances in both films are stellar, but McKinney’s alluring presence feels especially pronounced in Black Network. That solo! I’m not sure if you felt this way, or thought about this, but some of the lyrics to the song “Half of Me Wants to Be Good,” coupled with her astuteness and striking physicality, reminded me of Chick in Hallelujah. It’s not hard to understand why Vidor wanted to cast her after seeing her in the chorus line of Lew Leslie’s Broadway musical revue Blackbirds of 1928 (whose stars included the tap-dance virtuoso Bill “Bojangles” Robinson).

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The Black Network
Courtesy Film Forum

Watching McKinney’s screen performances makes it all the sadder to consider the trajectory of her career. After Hallelujah, she signed a five-year contract with MGM, making her the first Black woman to do so. But the roles that she deserved just didn’t exist in Hollywood’s racist climate. She wanted to be a star but ended up playing the maid or other small uncredited roles in a number of films. It makes sense that she eventually left the U.S. for Europe, à la Josephine Baker. McKinney had more luck there, as did many Black artists before and after her. She toured cabarets and was one of the first Black performers to appear on British television.

Linden: In Europe they called her The Black Garbo — meant, of course, as a compliment, but it’s such an unnecessary and off-the-mark comparison. I prefer the way headlines in Black newspapers called her simply Nina Mae. She was no Black version of a white star; she was her one and only self, and dazzlingly so. You make an interesting point about the link between McKinney’s song in The Black Network, “Half of Me Wants to be Good,” and her conflicted Chick in Hallelujah. I didn’t make the connection on first viewing, I think because I was so taken by her physical transformation in the short’s more modern story. She could be singing about Chick’s quandaries, yes. And she could be singing about the inner conflicts of a Black actor trying to build a career in a not always welcoming business.

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Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson and Leslie Banks in Sanders of the River
Courtesy Film Forum

Before she left for the Continent, at least McKinney had the chance to share the screen with the redoubtable Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River (1935), however problematic and deeply weird that movie is. Its flattering treatment of British colonialism in Africa is hard to watch (although the colonizers do look suitably foolish in their short pants). Robeson, who’d been led to believe that the film would treat Nigerian culture with respect, was enraged by the final product. If you can put aside the film’s unenlightened perspective and insipid premise, McKinney’s tough but loving Lilongo is captivating, whether she’s setting the rules with her tribal-chief husband or crooning a lullaby. McKinney’s unstoppable smarts and oomph transcend the unfortunate setup. There’s a delicious moment when, her hoop earrings flashing, she asserts her cosmopolitanism. “You wouldn’t know the place,” she tells Robeson’s character of her hometown. “I’m from the coast.”

After McKinney returned to the States, she eventually landed one last role in a film by a major director: Elia Kazan’s 1949 drama Pinky. Lovia, you mentioned colorism in Hallelujah. I’m eager to hear your take on this film, whose very subject is colorism. The drama revolves around a light-skinned Black woman who, after several years of passing as white up north, returns to her rural hometown. And, yes, she’s played by a white actress, Jeanne Crain. (Ten years later, Douglas Sirk would take the same casting approach in his remake of Imitation of Life.)

Pinky is a prestige pic, complete with a Barrymore in its cast, and very much an instance of Hollywood Grappling With Big Issues. Its casting of the title character is distracting, to put it mildly. Nothing against Crain’s performance (which was nominated for an Academy Award), but I couldn’t help thinking that the role should have been McKinney’s. Instead she’s seventh-billed. She turns her brief time onscreen into a welcome jolt of mouthy attitude and badassery. But imagine her as Pinky! Wouldn’t that be something.

Gyarkye: I had the same exact thought while watching Pinky. Why would you cast Crain when McKinney was right there? McKinney instead plays Rozelia, the jealous girlfriend of a man who owes money to Pinky’s grandmother, played by Ethel Waters. I love the scene where Rozelia confronts Pinky, thinking she’s trying to steal her man. In it, McKinney demonstrates her signature vivacity and Crain practically fades into the background. Rozelia starts fighting tooth and nail for her lover, grabbing Pinky and accusing her of stealing her money. She even interrupts the police investigation of the commotion with a cackle and a sneer. “Excuse me, sir, but why are you two white men ma’aming her?” she says to them about Pinky. “She’s nothing but a low-down colored gal.”

McKinney is a natural screen presence, and even in that brief scene she manages to steal the show. Casting her as Pinky would have made more sense. She would have added depth to the character, who, because of Crain’s tame acting, seems limp and passive. I imagine McKinney would have been just as entrancing as Ruth Negga in Rebecca Hall’s Passing. In fact, when I think about it, the nuanced way Negga conveys her character’s frenetic jumps between the terror of being caught and the thrill of escaping notice reminds me of McKinney.

It’s sad that McKinney didn’t star in any more films after that. There were rumors in the 1950s that she was trying to make a comeback, but she never did. She died in New York in 1967 of a heart attack and was sort of forgotten. In many ways she was a blueprint for an enduring style of acting, and it’s frustrating that the industry failed her.