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Browsing eScholarship@Morgan by Subject "Actresses, Black"
(2014) Witherspoon, Dabian; Mehlinger, Keith; English and Languages; Doctor of Philosophy
The career of Nina Mae McKinney and the appearance of Chick in Hallelujah mark the beginning of a significant rebellion against Hollywood's expectations for black actors and black characters in terms of agency and racial representation. Indeed, McKinney's groundbreaking role as Chick established her as the prototype for black female actors who would enjoy greater Hollywood success later, from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry. Furthermore, McKinney's performance as Chick would not only effect opportunities for other black actresses, it would predicate black stardom in Hollywood. Inasmuch, this study investigates the career trajectory of Nina Mae McKinney, a popular early twentieth-century African American actor whose brief achievements in film and entertainment poised her to become a major archetype whose potentiality as an actor would have promised to leave a legacy on par with her contemporaneous white peers, if not for her race. I contend that an examination of the stringent and myriad forms of institutionalized racism as well as socioeconomic and gender oppression facing McKinney throughout and beyond her career marginalized McKinney's professional achievements, and moreover, contributed to McKinney's resulting negative personal image that subsequently erased or mitigated her professional achievements and effectively erased her from the historical artistic public imagination. Although critics such as Donald Bogle downplay the significance of McKinney and her role as Chick or even, at times, demonize McKinney, this study interrogates such critical views to establish a connection between McKinney's established talents and the sociohistorical factors against which she battled. Specifically, through a comparative analysis of McKinney and her contemporaries against the specific historical/narrative framework informing the realities of African American actors, I argue that McKinney was the earliest precursor to black stardom in Hollywood. McKinney's Southern background and the mechanisms that were in place at the major film studios illustrate the challenges of an early twentieth-century society in which institutionalized racism was deeply rooted and upheld at all costs. Even in light of Hollywood's discrimination after her appearance in Hallelujah, McKinney was not content to simply find work in race films; in her attempt at agency, she chose strong, non-stereotypical, or at least balanced, leading roles in race films. Despite McKinney's struggle to maintain her career after Hallelujah, her role as Chick was groundbreaking and remains influential. This study's biographical approach to Nina Mae McKinney includes the following chapters: McKinney's Southern Background, Mechanisms in Place at the Major Film Studios, McKinney's Race Film Choices, The Press and McKinney's Personal Struggles, McKinney's Groundbreaking Role as Chick in Hallelujah, The Earliest Precursor to Black Stardom, and McKinney's Rightful Place in History.