Showing posts with label Hollywood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hollywood. Show all posts

February 05, 2013

History of The Black Pinup: Nina Mae McKinney


 'The Black Greta Garbo'


When reading about the history of starlets in the Hollywood of yore, we often learn about the meteoric rise of actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Elizabeth Taylor or Rita Hayworth. When charting the film careers of classic Black actresses, stories are often confined to Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, and yes, even Hattie McDaniel, who broke barriers by becoming the first Black actress to be nominated for and win an academy award for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”; and who’s success wasn't without some measure of controversy, as critics argued that many of her roles acceded to the sensibilities of white audiences and pandered to racial stereotypes and tropes about Black pathology, and took McDaniel to task for seeming to cow to being relegated to those roles.

For better or worse, the narratives we often hear about, very rarely include actress Nina Mae McKinney. Referred to as “The Black Greta Garbo”, McKinney is reportedly the first Black film actress to grace the silver screen in small but notable parts, and has the distinction of also being the first Black actress to appear on British television.

Born Nannie Mayme McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina, Nina got her start as a 16-year-old dancer in the chorus line on Broadway, in Lew Leslie’s production Blackbirds of 1928; a performance that resulted in her snagging the part of ‘Chick’ in King Vidor’s first all-Black 1929 talking picture Hallelujahas a last minute replacement for Ethel Waters or Honey Brown, who were both being considered for the role. While Hallelujah wasn't a massive commercial success, it still garnered enough attention to put Nina Mae McKinney on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's (MGM) radar; the film studio signed her to a 5 year contract. But as was par for the course for most Black actresses, her career fell prey to the contentious racial politics in the U.S. during that time. Despite contracting McKinney, MGM was reluctant to cast the beautiful starlet in feature films, placing most of her scenes on the cutting room floor while using her singing voice to dub over Jean Harlowe’s.  

Much to her dismay, the actress could only get roles in bit (stereotypical) parts through other studio productions, so moved to and toured throughout Europe, most notably to France and the UK, where she found success as a sought after cabaret singer and starred in the British based movie Sanders of the River, alongside Paul Robeson- (who later condemned the film after discovering it’d been re-edited during post-production, to the favor of white imperialism).

Nina Mae McKinney returned to the U.S. briefly, in 1939, to tour with Pancho Diggs and his orchestra, and married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe in 1940- they divorced a year later and Monroe married Billie Holiday. The actress still found difficulty navigating Hollywood’s racially biased film infrastructure, continuing to be overlooked for plum roles in favor of her white contemporaries. The rise of independently made race films provided Mckinney with the opportunities that seemed to elude her in Hollywood studio pictures, so she starred in several all-Black productions.

McKinney’s last known significant part was a supporting role in Elia Kazan’s 1949 film Pinky, where she played a prostitute named Rozelia. Little else is known about the actress’s later life, save for her reportedly expatriating to Greece for most of the 1950s and 1960s, before dying in New York to little or no fanfare in 1967, at the age of 54. According to the book “African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility 1900-1960”, McKinney’s death certificate listed her as having been ‘widowed’ and having worked as a ‘domestic’ for ‘private families’… the very image she tried to avoid inhabiting as an actress.
While one is loath to find her film career documented in the mainstream press, Nina Mae McKinney has been commemorated in her hometown of Lancaster, where her portrait hangs among other local notables. In 1978 the actress was also inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of fame, and was memorialized on a 2008 postage stamp honoring “vintage Black cinema”.  
Nina’s career was largely unsung, but the stunning actress and singer still managed to carve out a niche for herself, while helping pave the way for those notable Black actresses who came shortly after her, enabling them to continue knocking down doors in an industry that often didn't (and doesn't ) value or consider Black film actresses palatable enough for mainstream audiences, or viable enough to be placed in starring roles.   

December 07, 2012

"Not I", Said The Fly: I Don't Create Online Petitions

This will be brief...


Dear Armond White,

I know that being an incendiary contrarian of sorts is your thing, but I wasn't the person at the helm of circulating the petition opposing the upcoming film starring actress Zoe Saldana. I did express some valid thoughts on what I found problematic about the casting and mentioned some things about Colorism and the marginalization of a specific segment of Black women, as often perpetrated by the film industry and media. Dismissing a very relevant issue amongst women and young girls in my community as a case of jealousy and "crabs-in-the-barrel" mentality is a bit myopic, non? Particularly since in the same breath, you offered a critique suggesting that Tyler Perry's films simply aren't "good enough".

Anyway, a quick Google search- (and perhaps a thorough perusal of the post I wrote in August for context)- would've provided the name of the woman who actually created and circulated the petition for that upcoming movie. I did link it in my post to provide a source but once again, I didn't start or circulate any petitions demanding the dismissal of Black actresses from film projects.

In the grand scheme of things it's a minor flub, but it's very important to me since it was called-out on a very public platform.

Best,

Tiff J, Coffee Rhetoric

Check out episode 126 of BET late-night talk show, Don't Sleep, to see what provoked this open-letter. 






September 16, 2012

Yet More Thoughts About My Nina Simone Post


Since weighing in about the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana, in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, several blogs and media platforms have picked up on my blog piece regarding the matter and especially since my comments in Tanzina Vega's New York Times piece. There've been a couple of misconceptions, so I feel as if I need to offer some clarity as well as reiterate my stance on the matter...

First and most important, I actually was not the first person to broach this topic, as was suggested on one popular celebrity gossip blog. The Black independent film website, Shadow and Act was the first to present the information about the movie. The site's creator, Tambay A. Obenson initially made mention of the project in April, and he's been keeping tabs on the Nina Simone biopic since then, announcing and confirming in August that Zoe, was indeed, slated to play the title role. With that confirmation intact, I merely contributed my two cents, via a blog post, about the matter. I also did not circulate or start the petition to get Zoe Saldana removed from the project. In fact, a thorough read of my initial blog post, touches on the reasons why Zoe being cast as Nina Simone, are problematic. I never wrote that she wasn’t “Black enough”, I never mentioned her complexion, nor did I question her race. I said she didn’t share Nina’s phenotype. Nina Simone was a vigilant, unapologetic, mercurial, and amazing force, presented in a package that often isn’t preferred in the entertainment industry. 

August 19, 2012

Taking A Tumbl: Regarding My Nina Simone/Zoe Saldana Post

A couple of days ago, I linked my post: (Mis)Casting Call: The Erasure of Nina Simone's Image to my tumblr page, and it was re-blogged by several people; a couple of whom took issue with the picture I used to accompany the post. To them, the image took precedence over the very valid issues I raised in the blog post. One tumblr-er noted...
"feeling some type of way about that particular picture of Zoe Saldanath that picture is rubbing me the wrong way its like [they] are trying to erase the fact that zoe is black zoe is a black women [sic] nothing is going to change that definitely not an over edited picture and im not feeling this oversexualized picture of zoe being paired with that picture of nina"
*sigh* 

August 17, 2012

(Mis)Casting Call: The Erasure of Nina Simone's Image

Nina Simone: pioneer, influential, volatile, classical music genius, revolutionary, regal and every bit the High Priestess of Soul.

If anybody is worthy of having her story brought to the big screen for posterity, it would, and should, most assuredly be Nina. Despite having to overcome racism and colorism, Nina left a legacy of music and activism that continues to resonate with her fans, lifelong and new.  

When it was announced in 2010 that a Nina Simone biopic—based on a script by TV writer, Cynthia Mort—was in development and that singer, Mary J. Blige was slated to play her, the public's interest was piqued, though some (including myself) were a bit skeptical about whether Mary had the range and right look to portray such a dynamic and complex figure.  And while Mary J. Blige emotes a similar feeling of consciousness about love and heartbreak in her own music, she doesn't necessarily harness the same sense of social awareness Nina did.  Nonetheless, some of us stayed abreast of the project, which was slated to start filming last year. Alas, it was stalled by a series of setbacks that delayed production and Mary J. Blige dropped out of the film, reportedly, due to funding. 

Folks were left to ponder who would play Nina, and bloggers and fans campaigned for the Black actresses they thought were better suited for the role – including Viola Davis, Lauryn Hill, India Arie and Adepero Oduye, who starred in the Dee Rees film, Pariah – so many were left with feelings of confusion and dismay when Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana was announced as Mary J. Blige’s replacement. With Saldana on-board to play Nina, suddenly the film’s financial setbacks were resolved and filming picked up momentum. 


May 30, 2012

Michelle Rodriguez Says Only 'Black and Trashy' Roles Get Oscar Nods


When thinking down the line of Hollywood actresses of color who’ve made an indelible impact on current films, Michelle Rodriguez probably doesn’t register on anybody’s radar; at least not enough so, that she’d be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So when Vulture caught up with the actress at an amfAR event at Cannes this past week, the actress had just come from a screening of the controversial Lee Daniels directed film, The Paperboy-- (which has been garnering unfavorable reviews by critics) -- and expressed her appreciation for the film…
“I say fuck them because they don’t get it”, the actress opined. “He’s so good at keeping me entertained. When I don’t like the dialogue, I’m amused by the visuals. And when I don’t like the visuals, I’m amused by the dialogue. It’s always switching up senses. I’m intrigued by his ability to capture me in a theater. It’s not easy to capture me in a theater — I’m ADD like that.” 
When prodded about a scene in which Nicole Kidman apparently pees on actor Zac Efron  to soothe a jellyfish sting, Michelle waxed philosophical about the politics surrounding Black actresses and actors who’ve been nominated for and/or won film awards…
"I fucking loved it. One of my friends said, 'She’s going to get nominated for an Oscar for that.' I was like, 'Nah, man. She’s not black!' I laugh, but it’s also very sad. It makes me want to cry. But I really believe. You have to be trashy and black to get nominated. You can’t just be trashy."  (Source)
It didn’t take long for Michelle’s public gaffe to start circulating those Black pockets of the social media realm.  Re-tweeted and re-posted on Twitter and Facebook, Black bloggers and pop-culture critics were not amused and immediately took offense; but doesn't Michelle Rodriguez present a very good point about the worth of Black actors and actresses (or anyone in that industry, of color)  in Hollywood? As a woman of color, navigating the landscape of the Hollywood machine, Michelle herself has been typecast since making her debut in Girlfight, whether she’d be inclined to agree with that very obvious point or not, so on some level perhaps she speaks a very honest (albeit it an unfiltered and somewhat tactless) truth.

Consider some of the voices of displeasure when Octavia Spencer nabbed an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role (playing a sassy domestic) in The Help. And most of us couldn’t even fathom Viola Davis emphatically defending having played a maid in the same movie.  Some of our sistren and brethren still harbor the bitter aftertaste Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar win  for her turn in Monster’s Ball left in our mouths… the same evening Denzel  won for playing a corrupt and unscrupulous police officer in Training Day, to which he quipped, “Two birds in one night, huh?” during his acceptance speech.

In a sometimes tense Black social media sphere, where certain ones us hurl accusatory epithets like Mammy, Ghetto Queen,  Sapphire and thug towards entertainers who portray such roles, directors (both Black and non-Black, who help steer actors in those roles), and towards everyday people who don’t convey modes of behavior befitting the ideals and expectations of an upwardly mobile person of color; I get and understand the exasperation and desire to see better images of ourselves on the big screen and to see better behavior modeled by some folks in our community.  So in essence, isn’t Michelle Rodriguez mimicking a truth we often voice out loud about ourselves?  One commenter who actually agreed with Michelle’s assessment, wrote on Facebook...
The "black and trashy" are the most recognized and talked about which tends to silence all the valuing nominations into the backdrop or a footnote. What she speaks of are not absolutes but are of the most resonating nominations.”

Is Michelle Rodriguez’s comment about rewards for “Black and Trashy” roles a dig at Black actors or a critique of Hollywood’s perpetuation of racial stereotypes?

Also read: Barbara Jordan: Trailblazer, Leader, ... Common Asexual Mammy?