The movie Pinky was the epitome of her career.
Nina Mae McKinney played a supporting role in the movie Pinky, which was about a light skinned black woman who falls in love with a white doctor, though he is unaware of her race. McKinney played the jealous girlfriend to the light skinned African American woman who was played by a Caucasian actor, Jeanne Crain.
Nina Mae McKinney worked in a industry that chose to use Caucasian people to play African Americans for lead roles to tell stories ABOUT African Americans.
McKinney was born in 1912 in Lancaster, South Carolina. She moved to New York City at the age of 12 to join her parents who moved there to find better work like many others during the Great Migration. She loved performing an had been in plays at school. She debuted in the chorus line of Blackbirds of 1928 which starred Bill Bojangles Robinson. After that she landed a role in the movie Hallelujah by King Vidor, who was nominated for an academy award for directing.
She signed a 5-year contract with MGM after the success of Hallelujah. She did a few films after that, but the studio would not put her in a leading role which was frustrating after her success in the other roles. McKinney was stuck playing supporting roles. Like many actors of her hue, she found that the studio only wanted her in certain roles which were very career limiting. Imagine being called the Black Garbo, but not getting a chance to prove it. In 1935 she made Sanders of the River with Paul Robeson.
She and Robeson were promised the roles of the Africans in the movie would depict them respectfully, the film was later cut to change that. Even though McKinney was a triple threat because she could sing, dance and act, she was only offered roles as maids. She moved to Europe where she worked in nightclubs and theaters, doing an occasional movie. But eventually moved back to the United States in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.
She played maids and sex workers because those were the roles offered to people of color during that time period. She would get an occasional role that was off that path. In 1949 she landed the role of the jealous girlfriend in Pinky starring Jean Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters.
In 1951, she performed her last role in summer stock. She moved back to New York City in 1960. She died in 1967.
She lived the best life she could and we are the better for it. In 1978 she was awarded a lifetime achievement in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.