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McKinney, Nina Mae (1909-1967)

Actor, Singer

Main image of McKinney, Nina Mae (1909-1967)

Nina Mae McKinney's (née Nannie Mayme McKinney) career was launched when she was spotted in the chorus line of the theatrical revue Blackbirds (1928). She was cast in a leading role in King Vidor's musical film Hallelujah! (US, 1929). Billed as "a story of murder and redemption in the Deep South", Hallelujah! was the first sound feature film with an all-black cast.

In the 1930s she made two British films: Kentucky Minstrels (d. John Baxter, 1934) and Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935) where she starred opposite Paul Robeson. Unable to fulfil her potential in America, she left the USA for Europe, appearing in theatrical shows and cabaret. In Greece she was known as the "Queen of Night Life", in Budapest as the "Black Garbo".

Nina Mae McKinney is credited as the first black person to appear on British television. In 1935 she participated in a one hour GPO film called BBC - The Voice of Britain and in 1937 was one of several artists to feature in a BBC Television Demonstration Film (d. Dallas Bower, 1937).

Sadly Nina Mae McKinney's death in New York in 1967 (she returned in 1960) went unnoticed in the industry and the media at large, except for a small notice in a local paper. Nevertheless her talents were recognised in 1978 when she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Ann Ogidi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)BBC - The Voice of Britain (1935)

An impressionistic portrait of what was then a radio-only broadcaster

Thumbnail image of Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

The first of Korda's British colonial epics, disowned by its star

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