Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Nina Mae McKinney

In an alternate universe, Nina Mae McKinney is known as Hollywood's first black sex symbol.

Nina Maye McKinney was a charismatic singer, dancer, and actress with looks and talent that should have made her a star. But in 1920s and 1930s America, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with African Americans who were cut from the same cloth as could have been like Myrna Loy or Paulette Goddard or Greta Garbo. Instead, McKinney was relegated mostly to appearing in "race pictures," films made for distribution circuits that catered to black movie houses in the segregated South. Instead of taking her place among the stars--as her performance in "The Devil's Daugther" indicates she deserved... even if just among minor stars, like the low-budget beauties at Monogram--her show-business career centered mostly around singing in clubs.

McKinney did have one opportunity at movie stardom, however. She was cast as the leading lady in 1938's "The Duke Is Tops," but she fell ill before production began and the part was given to Lena Horne... and by 1942, Horne emerged as the first mainstream African American glamor queen.

In an alternate universe, Nina Mae McKinney is remembered as Hollywood's first black sex symbol, but in this one she died in 1967, forgotten and so obscure that no trade magazines even carried a death announcement.