Nina Mae McKinney, who made her screen début in King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929) – one of the first Hollywood films to feature an all-black cast – was hailed by MGM’s Irving Thalberg as ‘the greatest acting discovery of the age’. A vivacious beauty, Nina Mae had more in common with ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow or glamorous comedienne Carole Lombard than with the enigmatic Greta Garbo, to whom she was compared.
But like many other black actresses of her generation, McKinney was reduced to playing bit parts and never fulfilled her initial promise. Her subsequent career included roles in ‘race movies’ (films made outside Hollywood, for black audiences) and cabaret success in Europe. The British film historian, Stephen Bourne, who has previously written about other black female stars of the early twentieth century – including Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen – has now investigated the life and work of Nina Mae McKinney in his latest book, The Black Garbo. Continue reading