Film Forum: Series On Hollywood’s First Black Movie Star Starts Nov. 10th

South Carolina-born Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967) was still a teenager when she made her screen debut in HALLELUJAH!
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons\Detroit Public Library

NINA MAE McKINNEY: HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST BLACK MOVIE STAR, a celebration of the little-known career of the actress/singer, will have select screenings at Film Forum beginning November 10 with the world premiere of a new 35mm restoration of King Vidor’s landmark HALLELUJAH! (1929), Hollywood’s first sound feature with an all-Black cast.

HALLELJUAH! has been restored by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

Discovered by Vidor when she was a Broadway chorus girl in Blackbirds of 1928, South Carolina-born Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967) was still a teenager when she made her screen debut in HALLELUJAH! Following rave reviews (The New York Times hailed it as “most impressive”), McKinney’s studio, MGM, touted her among its galaxy of stars, a first for an African American artist.

The HALLELUJAH! screening will be introduced by author and film historian Donald Bogle, whose seminal book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films was the first to recognize McKinney as a major figure in the history of Black entertainment. When still in his 20s, Bogle interviewed King Vidor at length about HALLELUJAH! and McKinney. In his book Brown Sugar, Bogle wrote, “For a brief spell it looked as if she would be the one sepia star in Hollywood’s lilywhite heaven. Everyone from director Vidor to producer Irving Thalberg predicted a glorious future for her. But McKinney learned what every other Black love goddess of the screen was to discover: after one great triumph, there were no significant follow-up roles.”

Following the screening, David Pierce, Chief Operations Officer of the Library of Congress film archive in Culpeper, Virginia, will talk about the HALLELUJAH! restoration. He will be joined by Margaret Bodde of the Film Foundation.

McKinney was dubbed “the Black Greta Garbo” (though her screen persona was, in fact, nothing like Garbo’s) by Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts Jr., who called her “assuredly one of the most beautiful women of our time… Her voice is revealed as a deep, husky, throaty contralto that possesses every bit of that fabulous poetic glamour that has made this distant Swedish lady, the outstanding actress of the motion picture World.” In a 1932 review, the critic for Variety wrote, “Without fear of contradiction I hold that Nina is by far our finest screen actress.”

Her Hollywood success, however, was fleeting.

The remainder of her film career was mostly in musical shorts, “race pictures” (low-budget movies made specifically for African American audiences), or in films made in England, until the late 1940s when she was offered an important role in in Elia Kazan’s PINKY.

In the early 1930s, McKinney moved to England, where she became a star of nightclubs, radio and even early television – she was, in fact, the first Black woman ever to appear on TV (in a BBC experimental broadcast in 1933). In England, she also appeared in the feature KENTUCKY MINSTRELS and, in perhaps her second most important film role, co-starred with Paul Robeson in SANDERS OF THE RIVER (1935).

Little is known of the last fifteen years of McKinney’s life. She apparently ended her days working as a domestic – a part she refused to play in movies. In 2019, The New York Times published a belated obituary of McKinney as part of their “Overlooked” series.

“She could act, sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.” – Fayard Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers), quoted in The Black Garbo by Stephen Bourne.

See below for series schedule.


Wednesday, November 10 at 6:30

HALLELUJAH! (King Vidor, 1929) New 35mm restoration, with short PIE, PIE, BLACKBIRD (1932) with Eubie Blake & Orchestra and the Nicholas Brothers.

Full program approx. 120 min.

Introduced by author and historian Donald Bogle.

Post-screening talk by David Pierce of the Library of Congress and Margaret Bodde of the Film Foundation

Tuesday, November 16 at 12:30, 6:50

SAFE IN HELL (William A. Wellman, 1931) with Dorothy Mackaill,

BLACK NETWORK (1936) with the Nicholas Brothers

Both 35mm. Full program approx. 93 mins.

Introduced by artist and historian Ina Archer

Tuesday, November 23 at 6:40

SANDERS OF THE RIVER (Zoltan Korda, 1935) with Paul Robeson,

With excerpt from KENTUCKY MINSTRELS (1934), courtesy Library of Congress

Both 35mm. Full program approx. 113 mins.

Introduced by Susan Robeson, biographer and granddaughter of Paul Robeson

Tuesday, November 30 at 12:30, 6:50

PINKY (Elia Kazan, John Ford uncredited, 1949)

DCP. Approx. 102 min.

Introduced by Maya Cade, creator of Black Film Archive

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