They were entrepreneurs with a conscience, men who believed in fighting fire with fire. And that combination made them not only heroes of the civil rights struggle, but film industry pioneers.
Noble M. and George P. Johnson, two African American brothers, launched their Lincoln Motion Picture Co. in response to the wave of racism that swept the country after the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” with its inflammatory portrayal of Reconstruction-era blacks.
Though they produced fewer than a dozen films in less than five years for a loyal, all-black audience, the Johnson brothers virtually created what is now regarded as “niche” filmmaking and marketing.
The brothers were born in the early 1880s in Colorado Springs, Colo. After graduating from high school, Noble, an aspiring actor, headed west with the help of his friend and former classmate, Lon Chaney, a rising star who ultimately would become known as the “man with a thousand faces.” Noble’s skill with horses and his fair complexion helped him when auditioning for bit parts not written for black actors.
George went east to Virginia’s Hampton Institute, a traditional black university. Like many of his college-educated contemporaries, George accepted the responsibilities of belonging to what W.E.B. du Bois called black America’s “talented tenth.” Upon graduating, he vowed to do what he could to remove the obstacles that stood in the way of equal rights, and soon settled in Omaha, Neb., where he secured a job with the U.S. Post Office.
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Noble’s conscience was pricked by the lack of opportunity for people of color in the film industry. This was heightened when “Birth of a Nation” hit the theaters, spawning a national resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith portrayed heroically in his controversial classic.
Blacks marched in front of some theaters that showed “Birth of a Nation.” President Woodrow Wilson not only screened the movie in the White House, but praised its view of history.
The Johnson brothers resolved to fight back from behind the camera. They were determined to depict African American life with dignity through what they called “race” movies, films made expressly for black audiences in a segregated society.
In 1916, the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. was born, incorporating with an office on Central Avenue and a filming stage on Tennessee Avenue in West Los Angeles.
Launching their first feature-length film, “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition,” in 1916, Noble Johnson starred as a black engineer who strikes oil and becomes a millionaire, but more important, establishes his identity as an independent black man. George described the film as “the first successful, Class A Negro motion picture minus all burlesque and humiliating comedy.”
While Noble was the star, George was the guiding hand who wrote scripts and marketed the films from his Omaha home, renting them to exhibitors for $15 to $20 a day.
Before America entered World War I, theaters along Central Avenue packed in patrons waiting to see “The Trooper of Troop K,” the first black Western. While some mainstream movie houses advertised a special showing of the film at 2 or 3 a.m., called a “midnight ramble,” other theaters segregated audiences even for the Johnson brothers’ films, relegating blacks to the balcony.
In 1918, when the war ended, Lincoln’s profits began to plummet. Many movie houses closed as the Spanish influenza swept through the country, killing more people than the war.
Gradually, profits increased. But the roller coaster ride was too much for Noble and he left the company for a regular paycheck at Universal Studios in 1920. Despite that decision, he and George remained close.
Taking charge--and a paid medical leave from the post office--George headed west for Los Angeles. He hired talented actors and actresses from the Lafayette Players, an all-black L.A.-based theater company. The company’s secretary, Clarence A. Brooks, replaced Noble, taking center stage in “A Man’s Duty,” dramatizing African Americans’ right to participate freely in American life.
Although the film company’s earnings were small, it provided a training ground for many young black performers, such as Beulah Hall, Jimmie Smith, Clarence Brooks, Albertine Pickens, Anita DuBois and screenwriter Dora Mitchell. Cameraman and stockholder Harry A. Gant, who already worked full time for a larger motion picture company, moonlighted for Lincoln.
In 1921, while Hollywood was painting up white people to play blacks, renowned social reformer Booker T. Washington appeared in the company’s sixth film, “By Right of Birth,” a story about racism in which a light-skinned black passes for a white. It premiered to a full house, accompanied by the John T. Spikes jazz band at the Trinity Auditorium, the first home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Grand Avenue and 9th Street.
But again the company began to sink. George devised promotional schemes to woo moviegoers. He organized spirited street parades and hired beautiful young women to sell tickets at social centers and churches throughout the city. But the limited income levels in the black communities prevented him from filling the theaters.
He finally appealed to the banks. But they turned him down, seeing no advantage in investing in black films.
Faced with the growing competition of other newly organized black film companies and increased production costs, George halted production and concentrated on marketing the company’s earlier films. But that too soon came to a end. Lincoln closed in 1922.
While Noble would continue to act in supporting roles, including “Topsy and Eva” (1927) and “Moby Dick” (1930), George turned his attention to documenting the progress of other black film companies. Although none of the brothers’ movies exist today in their entirety (they were improperly stored and eventually disintegrated in warehouses), portions are on file with the Library of Congress. When George died in 1977, he left a 60-year file of clippings, correspondence and photographs now housed at the UCLA Research Library.