I didn’t have plans to talk about the Oscars this year — especially not in print. This year, they are not ours to lose. There is, of course, no nomination for the luminous, near-floating Lupita. There is no woeful deflation weighing on Chiwetel’s face as he watches his lifelong dream waft further away from him and closer to the white man who made films like Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past for a full fifteen years before Getting Serious About His Craft. This year, I’d planned to regard the awards far more impassively, not with the rigor or attentiveness of someone with anything particular at stake. I intended only to ogle the dresses and to smile at Neil Patrick Harris and to sip wine like a socialite, wanly yawning at 11 p.m.
But I was asked if I wanted to write. And the outlet that asked has been one of my dream publications since long before seeing my byline there felt even remotely attainable. So I tried to develop an argument that began with Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch, both of whom had spoken out about lack of diversity and dearth of opportunity for actors of color, in the U.S. and the U.K. I wanted to assert that, perhaps if a critical mass of white actors used their social capital to advocate for diversity, we might see more of it at a quicker rate than we have in decades past.
I am also working on a new fiction project*, and it involves old Hollywood’s lesser-known black actresses. I thought it might be powerful to weave in the story of one of them, whose life I’d just started to research, into the essay I planned to write. When you are writing for your dream publication, you want to create something gorgeous and sprawling and epic but also spare and elegant and searing. A tall order, but one I thought I might achieve by opening the piece with the story of Nina Mae McKinney and her first film, 1929’s Hallelujah.
Historians Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton’s 2013 Criterion Collection DVD commentary for Hallelujah is available on YouTube. Below, I’ve cued up to Nina’s first scene. Listen for about three minutes, as Bogle describes her, and watch her work, to get a sense of how captivating she was:
Hallelujah was one of the first two films that “integrated” Hollywood: a film that took black characters seriously (until this point black folks were played by whites in blackface, almost always as villains and/or buffoons). The filmmaker, King Vidor, was white and already in the prime of his career. Still, the chance he took on employing black actors for a major Hollywood production was a big one. He mined already thriving black entertainment sectors, finding actors who’d worked in “race films“** and musicians playing segregated, all-black clubs in New York and LA to populate the cast. But none of these spots were where he found Nina Mae. Nina was plucked from Broadway. Just 16 years old, she’d shimmied her way into the chorus line of a black Broadway musical review, Blackbirds of 1928. Vidor was transfixed and knew he needed her to play the sweet, seductive con-woman Chick in Hallelujah.
For his efforts in finding just the right star in Nina Mae and telling a story that gave black characters their own passions and predicaments, outside of white households and white communities, King Vidor was nominated for an Oscar in 1930. Nina Mae, of course, was not. It would be another nine years before a black actress was first nominated for an Oscar — for a playing a maid whose story was told solely through her interactions with whites. (Fun fact: Pioneering Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel had an older brother, Sam McDaniel, who was also a Hollyood actor. He starred with Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah.)
Vidor’s confidence in Nina Mae McKinney’s star power wasn’t misplaced. MGM took notice, too, and did something unprecedented as a result: the studio offered McKinney a multi-picture deal. She was the first black actress ever to receive one.
What follows will be a familiar story. Because films with all-black casts were still rare and novel occurrences in Hollywood, McKinney didn’t find much work there that showcased her talents as generously as Hallelujah did. In fact, much of the work on at least one of her contractual film roles was edited out of the final cut. Other roles were simply brief and underwritten. Impatient with the slow march of progress, McKinney left Hollywood for Europe, where she became the first black actress to appear on European television. But even there, super-stardom eluded her. McKinney died relatively young, one month before her 55th birthday. At the time of her passing, she was rumored both to have been struggling with addiction and to have been working, in the last years of her life, as a domestic in New York City.
Somehow, I wanted to weave McKinney’s life story into my essay. But I also wanted to talk about what it’s meant, historically, for the benefits white directors have received for black performances to have far outweighed the benefits, if any, that black artists themselves have enjoyed. I wanted to talk about the Academy’s caprice, how one year it can fete black actors for reliving the atrocities visited on our ancestors, then shut out other black artists, just one year later, for embodying different forebears — ones whose voices held slightly more sway over their generation’s oppressive white regime.
Then, of course, I would need to tie in today’s oppressive white regime (the 94 percent white contingent of Oscar voters). I would need to make an adequate case for white actors appealing to their own — directors, producers, writers, other white actors — that their storytelling and their performances could only be improved by the nuance and challenge racial and cultural diversity provides.
But in the end, whether it was a failure of time or of my arrangement and rearrangement of the words or of the strength of my argument (and I suspect it was some amalgam of the three), my final essay — a patchwork of paragraphs culled from three separate drafts — didn’t make it into my dream publication.
That final essay did find an open, welcoming and generous home. You can read it there.
The Oscars, however, are tomorrow. And even after the publication of my (decent) post about them, I still felt fairly restless. I hadn’t called Nina Mae McKinney’s career back into our collective consciousness. I hadn’t taken white Hollywood to task and hadn’t had a chance to go on record as commending Chastain and Cumberbatch for speaking out (even if the latter called us “colored” when he did).
I am running out of space here, as well, so I won’t talk about how writers agonize over their rejections and how mine are becoming more frequent, the closer I get to a new rung on the ladder of whatever career I’m cobbling together here. I won’t talk about faith or having it shaken — or about how patient my loved ones are when my insecurities make me really uncomfortable to be near. I won’t describe my daughter’s crestfallen face when she twice found me crying last week. Not yet. Those are stories for other days. Indeed, they are stories I’ve already told you. Let’s not belabor them.
Instead, we can focus our attention elsewhere. I am just one black woman, weathering dashed hopes and reconfiguring herself after what feels like a failed enterprise. I’ve learned, in the past week especially, just how common it is to miss the mark and to gather yourself and go forward, just to miss it again. It’s a story much older than Hollywood, much older than most of our ancestors. But it will always be a story worth revisiting. Somehow, circling back to it always reinforces our foundation.
* Don’t put too, too much stock in mentions I make of fiction projects. Until I get some quiet, dedicate time to flesh them out, they haven’t gained much traction. Right now, I’m hopeful about this one. But get at me in a year and we’ll see where we are with it.
** More on race film history appears in the Bitch magazine piece that was eventually published.