Curio Cabinet | December 11, 2020

Just Nina Mae: The Struggle of an Early African American Movie Star

During Hollywood’s early years, tantalizing stories of discovery flourished, luring young hopefuls to the fledgling industry out west. According to movie lore, The Hollywood Reporterfounder Billy Wilkerson came across sixteen-year-old Lana Turner drinking a Coke at a soda fountain. Photographer David Conover spotted Marilyn Monroe while she was working on an airplane assembly line. And John Wayne was a prop man on John Ford’s movie set when the director made him an extra in his film. Fame and fortune for these actors soon followed.

Nina Mae McKinney’s story of discovery was no less fantastic. She left high school at sixteen to join the chorus of impresario Lew Leslie’s all-Black Broadway musical revue, Blackbirds of 1928. Hollywood directors and producers regularly raided Broadway productions for fresh, inexpensive talent to fill their stables at their California studios. After failing to sign jazz singer Ethel Waters, one of MGM’s top directors, King Vidor, was on the lookout for an extraordinary Black actress to play the title role of Chick, a singer and dancer in Hallelujah. The movie was a serious look into the lives of African Americans in the South. When he saw Blackbirds, McKinney stood out. He later recalled, “She was third from the right in the chorus. She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.” When they met after the show, he offered her the lead, skipping the usual preliminary screen tests, acting classes, and makeovers. There is no evidence that McKinney was seeking a movie career; she had fallen in love with theater as a young girl growing up in South Carolina and trained herself as a singer and dancer, borrowing songs and choreography from the movies she saw at the local theater. In many ways, films were still inferior to Broadway, which in 1925 staged over two hundred productions; nevertheless, she accepted Vidor’s offer.

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