ON THIS DATE in 1929, MGM’s musical drama Hallelujah hit theaters. The film starred seventeen-year-old Nina Mae McKinney, the first African-American actress to hold a principal role in a mainstream film.
McKinney had caught the eye of Hollywood director King Vidor with her performance as a chorus girl in the Broadway play Blackbirds. In Hallelujah, she played a big-city temptress who helps con a sharecropper named Zeke. This was the first all-black sound picture and it resulted in an Oscar nomination for Vidor. Film critic Leonard Maltin called it an “early talkie triumph.”
Hollywood roles for African-American actresses were scarce, and in 1935 McKinney shipped to Europe, where she appeared in theater and cabaret and earned the nickname “The Black Garbo.” McKinney had success in Greece after World War II, and then returned to the U.S. in 1960. She died in 1967.