In the early days of Hollywood, black women were often relegated to minor roles or portrayed in a negative light. However, there were trailblazers who broke through those barriers and became the first black woman movie stars.
One such woman was Nina Mae McKinney. Born in 1912 in South Carolina, McKinney began her career as a dancer and singer in the chorus line of the popular Broadway show “Blackbirds of 1928.” Her performance caught the eye of Hollywood producers, and she was soon signed to a contract with MGM.
McKinney’s breakthrough role came in 1929 with the film “Hallelujah!” directed by King Vidor.
In the film, she played Chick, a seductive temptress who leads a young man astray. Despite some criticism for perpetuating negative stereotypes, McKinney’s performance was praised for its energy and charisma.
Over the next few years, McKinney appeared in several films, including “Safe in Hell” (1931) and “Reckless” (1935). However, she struggled to find substantial roles that didn’t rely on racial stereotypes. She eventually left Hollywood and returned to performing on stage.
Another early black movie star was Fredi Washington. Born in 1903 in Georgia, Washington began her career as a model before transitioning to acting. She made her film debut in 1929 with “The Emperor Jones,” starring alongside Paul Robeson.
Washington’s most famous role came in 1934 with the film “Imitation of Life.” In it, she played Peola, a light-skinned black woman who tries to pass as white to escape racism. The film dealt with issues of colorism and identity that were groundbreaking at the time.
Despite her success on screen, Washington faced discrimination behind the scenes. She was often passed over for roles because of her dark skin tone and became an advocate for darker-skinned actors.
Other notable black women in early Hollywood include Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her role in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), and Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in “Carmen Jones” (1954).
In conclusion, Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington were two of the first black women to break through the racial barriers of early Hollywood and become movie stars. Despite facing discrimination and being typecast in certain roles, they paved the way for future generations of black actors and actresses.