Recognized for playing Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Latinos in “King Kong,” “The Mummy,” “The Ten Commandments” and many others throughout his long film career, African American Noble Johnson achieved greater renown for establishing Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, the first company making and releasing films strictly for African American audiences. Almost forgotten today, Johnson strove to make what were called “race” films emphasizing the intelligence, talents and success of black Americans as a counterpoint to the often racist and off-putting portrayals of African Americans in contemporary films.
Born 1881 in Missouri, Johnson moved with his family to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he worked with animals before he began appearing in silent films in 1914, including Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Squaw Man.” His athletic, tall frame and dramatic features helped land him many acting jobs at major studios, and his talent for performing gained him good notices in almost everything he portrayed, even in small roles. Not only did he act, but he also wrote scripts.
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Tired of seeing disrespectful, demeaning caricatures of African Americans onscreen, Johnson and his brother, George P., a postal worker in Omaha, Neb., decided to portray their people with dignity and respect by forming their own company on May 24, 1916. They purchased ads in major moving picture publications like Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World, announcing the creation of their company.
Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World both carried the first advertisement of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s foundation in their July 1, 1916, issues, which announced that the two-reel drama “Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” had been completed. Calling it “a beautiful story, well acted by an all-star Negro cast,” that was “one all Negroes will want to see and one of which all may justly be proud,” the company urged theatre owners catering to African American audiences to seek out the film.
Motography ran a story documenting the company and its founding on July 8, noting that Johnson had been playing Indian and Negro roles for Los Angeles studios for two years. Johnson would serve as president and leading man, Dr. James Thomas Smith would serve as Treasurer, Clarence Brooks as Secretary, and Beulah Hall as female star. Company officers had conducted research showing that over 1,000 theatres across the United States catered exclusively to African American audiences, a majority of them found in the South. They felt well-made films produced by African-Americans would draw audiences to these theatres.
As the trades described “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambitions,” “The first two-reel subject which will be produced will show the possibilities of the colored race to improve their conditions through education. The hero is a graduate of a colored men’s college (Tuskegee), secures employment as an oil engineer – his chosen vocation – through his heroism in saving the life of a big factory owner’s daughter.” As with all their films, it was made to present dignified, educated, successful African-Americans onscreen that audiences could aspire to.
The film kicked off with major ballyhoo when it screened as the opening attraction of Lincoln Electric Park at Kansas City. Mo. during National Negro Business Week August 14-20, 1916. As reviewed in the Kansas City Sun Aug. 26, 1916, it was a “beautiful and wonderful race photoplay….This educational and interesting picture marks the beginning of a new era in the production of Race pictures. Feeling that the trend of public sentiment among the Race lovers of the silent drama is growing so antagonistic to the insulting, humiliating and undignified portrayal of the cheap burlesque, slap-stick comedies so universally shown as characteristic of the Afro-American ideals, the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. of Los Angeles, Cal., a Race firm has in their first release successfully eliminated these undesirable features and produced a really interesting, inspiring and commendable education love drama featuring the business and social life of the Negro, as it really is and not as our jealous contemporaries would have us appear.” They went on to call iit “classy” and well produced for a first feature.
The Lincoln film played in theatres in major cities, in churches or schools in smaller towns, or even at colleges like Tuskegee Institute.
The company formally incorporated on Jan. 24, 1917, with a stock valuation of $75,000 in order to raise more funds to produce films. Officers and directors included Noble and George Johnson, Clarence Brooks, J. Thomas Smith, and Dudley A. Brooks. They established branch offices in St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, New York, and the main booking office in Omaha to help with states’ rights sales, and named newspaper editors as heads of these offices in order to help publicize the films. Unknown to the general public, however, white cameraman Harry Gant directed and shot most of their films, as reported by historian Bob Birchard.
That spring, Lincoln attempted something new, booking an African American film in a whites only theatre in the South. The March 10, 1917, Philadelphia Tribune reported that the company booked their second film “The Trooper of Troop K” on March 2 in a whites only theatre in New Orleans, in which the audience applauded the film. The film told the story of a black man joining the army which would provide him an honorable position better than he could find almost anywhere else. HIs bravery leads to a promotion before he saves the entire army at the battle of Carrizali. 300 extras were employed for battle scenes in the film and a whole village was constructed, making it an epic for race films.
By May 19, 1917, the company was actively reaching out to African Americans to buy stock and provide a strong financial base from which to make films. They bought half page ads in the Kansas City Sun promoting the high quality of their productions, listing some of their financial backers, and providing quotes praising their films. Accomplishments included the film playing in major extended runs at theatres around the country and the company screening films for foreign distributors. A Motion Picture News quote even stated, “The Lincoln organization is the only one in the world making Negro subjects, and they have found a good market for their releases.”
On Nov. 3, 1917, the Kansas City Sun reported that Lincoln Motion Picture Co.’s District Manager H.E. Cross ensured that all African American students could see the film in the city by arranging with schools of both Kansas Citys to allow all colored schoolchildren and their teachers to see both of Lincoln’s films at the Vine Street Theater. This was one of the first times screenings were organized for the benefit and education of children.
In March 1918, Lincoln Motion Picture Co. filmed African American orator Roscoe Simmons for what would intended to be their first feature film, which the March 2, 1918, Denver Star stated would be included “in a film now in the making, and which is to be the initial film of a series showing the industrial, commercial, fraternal, religious, educational, and civic activities of the race throughout the world.” The company intended once again to show the talent, skill, and intelligence of successful African-American men and women, which all could aspire to.
By 1920, though the company had produced five films, three dramas and two pictorial subjects which included the five-reel feature “A Man’s Duty” in 1919, they were bleeding money. Johnson focused on his career, becoming an established contract player at Universal and writing scripts and stepped down from leadership in the company. James T. Smith took over.
Lincoln Motion Picture Co. rented Berwilla Studios at 5821 Santa Monica Blvd. per the June 22, 1921, Los Angeles Herald to make their sixth and longest film, “By Right of Birth,” starring Clarence Brooks and Anita Thompson and with Booker T. Washington playing a cameo. The paper called the film “a creditable showing in a new field.”
Attempting to gain big publicity to ensure large profits, George P. Johnson rented the Trinity Auditorium at Grand Avenue and 9th Street for screenings on June 22 and 23, one of the largest screenings ever for a Lincoln Motion Picture Co. production. Installing a projection booth and screen for the special showings, Johnson’s hook of engaging pretty girls to sell tickets lead to sold out screenings. As historian Birchard described in an article, Johnson arranged a major premiere screening with a uniformed footman for those arriving by auto, Webb Spike’s 30 member band providing a prologue with music, songs and dances. Two African-American newspapers and three white papers covered the screening, with a special appearance by the cute kid actor Sunshine Sammy Morrison.
Though the screening was a big success, it failed to draw more money or bigger audiences to Lincoln Motion Picture Co. films, leading it to shut down. By this time, Oscar Micheaux was making outstanding films, and took over the mantle of leading African-American film producer. While Lincoln Motion Picture Co. is mostly forgotten now, it lead the way for other strong African American filmmakers like Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins.