Arts

The Glory of Nina Mae McKinney, an Early Black Star in White Hollywood

In 1929, just as moving pictures were learning to talk, a vivacious teenager named Nina Mae McKinney helped make them sing. Plucked from obscurity, she shook up the screen in “Hallelujah!,” an all-Black Hollywood musical. She sang and danced with verve, and the camera adored her. She had huge eyes, a husky laugh, voluptuous curves. Mostly, she had that ineffable something — magnetism, oomph — that electrified the screen, making two dimensions seem like three. She was a ready-made star, but she was also a Black woman in Jim Crow Hollywood, when the industry wasn’t yet soft-pedaling its racism.

The story of McKinney — her rapid, exciting rise to American celebrity and her slow, steady fade-out — can be tracked in the downward arc of her filmography that’s evident in the partial retrospective that begins Wednesday at Film Forum. The series showcases “Hallelujah!,” her greatest triumph, which is being presented in a new 35-millimeter restoration. Also on tap are two short films, an excerpt and three additional features — some grating, others charming and almost all of greater historic than aesthetic interest. Yet even at their creakiest and cringiest, they offer irresistible visions of McKinney (who died in 1967) and why she is remembered as among Hollywood’s first Black stars.

She was born in South Carolina in 1912 (some sources say 1913), moving to New York about a dozen years later. There, as she explained in a Pittsburgh Courier interview, she went to the movies and played dress-up back home, teaching herself to dance by watching others. She received more formal training, McKinney said, when she was cast in the chorus for a Broadway revue titled “Blackbirds of 1928.” It was apparently during that show’s run that the director King Vidor, under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, first saw McKinney. She “was third from the right in the chorus,” Vidor wrote in his autobiography. “She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.”

A curio that’s by turns fascinating, engaging and wincingly clichéd, “Hallelujah!” tells the story of Zeke (a magnetic Daniel L. Haynes), the eldest son in a family of poor Southern tenant farmers. The story kicks in when, after selling the family’s cotton crop, Zeke wanders into a classic den of inequity. There, he sees Chick (McKinney), a shimmying, shimmering beauty in a flirty, satiny dress who’s entertaining a crowd of rambunctious men. Like countless male rubes before and after him, Zeke falls for Chick and he keeps on falling, plummeting into a series of crises as he’s ceaselessly torn between the temptations of the flesh (a.k.a. Chick) and the salvation of his spirit.

McKinney has second billing and fewer lines than Haynes does, but the vibrancy of her presence and the importance of her Jezebel role make her part seem far larger than it is. This was McKinney’s film debut but she already knew how to move onscreen (a lost art), and how to take up space and hold it tight. Like the other performances, her delivery can seem overstated, with needlessly exaggerated, near-hieroglyphic poses and gestures. This is partly because of the era’s pantomime-influenced style of screen acting, though the hyperbole may also reflect a white director’s ideas about Black humanity. Yet while Chick is broadly drawn, McKinney fills her with intensities of feeling.

Vidor, who longed to make an all-Black film, was an established director when he pitched “Hallelujah!” to MGM. “The whites will stay away,” one executive warned, but the studio relented when Vidor rolled his salary into the film’s financing. (“Hallelujah!” did flop, partly because big white theaters wouldn’t book it.) The studio’s meddling continued. The producer Irving Thalberg found the actress originally cast as Chick, Honey Brown, lacking in sex appeal, which led to McKinney getting cast. The studio also had its say about the soundtrack, which apparently, and pathetically, Thalberg found depressing and strange, and explains why Chick sings the Irving Berlin tune “Swanee Shuffle.”

Vidor may have wanted to make an all-Black movie, but MGM clearly didn’t want it too Black. Even so, Vidor did his part to strive for authenticity or at least his version of it, and went all out, hiring performers from stage and street alike, and shooting on location. The film also employed some African American crew, including an assistant director, Harold Garrison, and choral director, Eva Jessye, who wrote music for it. In 1930, after the film opened, Jessye criticized the production’s shabby treatment of its Black talent and explicitly noted that on some days McKinney and Haynes were ready to collapse from overwork. “There was not,” Jessye claimed, “much hallelujah in it for the cast.”

By that point, the film had already hit cinemas and stirred up excitement in both the Black and white press. It wasn’t the first Black movie; independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, among other African Americans, were producing Black movies for Black audiences. It wasn’t even the first Black musical from a major studio, Fox’s “Hearts in Dixie” having already opened. But in its music, religious themes and portrayal of a loving family, Vidor’s film offered images of ordinary African American existence that many critics embraced. “It is the sense of real life,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Crisis, the official publication of the N.A.A.C.P., “that marks ‘Hallelujah’ as epoch-making.”

DuBois didn’t single out McKinney other than to note her “slim grace,” but five months later, a smoldering glamour shot of her, complete with bared shoulder, adorned the cover of The Crisis. There was no story accompanying the image, and she was identified simply as a “motion picture actress.” But by then her celebrity had exploded. Her face was widely enshrined, her movements breathlessly cataloged. “Nina Mae McKinney, Famous Talkie Star to Appear Here in Person,” a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier trumpeted, adding that she “is considered as perhaps the most outstanding screen star of the race today.” A great deal rode on her young, slight frame.

McKinney in “The Black Network,” one of several shorts she appeared in.Credit…Warner Bros.

MGM may have put McKinney under contract; the record remains sketchy. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that after “Hallelujah!,” Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her. As the historian Donald Bogle argues in his book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams,” the 1930s offered increased opportunities for Black stars and extras, opening up new horizons and bringing accolades. At the same time, Bogle writes, “the day of the bona fide ‘dark star’ would be long in coming.” The industry’s tightening self-censorship mandates, which specifically forbade “sex relationships between the white and Black races,” only institutionalized its racism and further marginalized African American actors.

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McKinney continued to perform and appeared in a smattering of other pictures, independent and studio. In the best of these, “Safe in Hell” (1931), a diverting, weird little pre-Code nugget from William A. Wellman, she has a supporting role as a hotel manager alongside the great Clarence Muse. The role is modest but she gives it sparkling wry humor and her familiar warmth, and is allowed to perform without the dialect so beloved by white Hollywood. A few years later, she had a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo playing herself in the Jean Harlow vehicle “Reckless,” delivering just a few plaintively fitting lines from the movie’s title song: “I just keep hoping for one who’s hoping for me.”

That decade, she popped up in short studio films like “Pie, Pie, Blackbird” and “The Black Network,” both with the young Nicholas Brothers. McKinney also made “Sanders of the River” (1935), a British film set in colonial Nigeria, co-starring as the wife of a native chief played by Paul Robeson. Critics were understandably unkind. She toured Europe, performing in variety shows and drawing appreciative audiences, and appeared on records as well as on radio and television. She fell ill before she was set to appear alongside the Black star and producer Ralph Cooper in “The Duke Is Tops,” a no-budget indie. She was replaced by Lena Horne, who went on to have the greater film career.

In 1946, the Los Angeles Sentinel ran a piece announcing that McKinney “Keeps Busy Making Bids for a Comeback.” Public-relations fluff, the article was suitably fawning: “This young woman has certainly seen the world,” the writer gushed, “and is still going strong.” It is jolting, even knowing all that we know about Hollywood, that McKinney was only in her 30s and facing obscurity. There were more notes high and low (Elia Kazan’s 1949 “Pinky” is both), but her story only grew fainter. By the 1950s, Hue magazine asked, “Whatever Happened To: Nina Mae McKinney?,” a question answered by scholars like Bogle and a series like this, which in honoring her, honors the true arc of history.

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