The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was an American film production company founded by the Johnson brothers in 1915 in Omaha, Nebraska; it was incorporated in 1916 in Los Angeles, California. Among the first organized black filmmakers, it became the first producer of so-called race movies.
The company stated its purpose was to “encourage black pride” while upholding the social order of the period. It wanted to correct the distortions portrayed in white films while accurately depicting black reality and fostering a positive black image. Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced mostly family-oriented pictures in its three shorts and two feature-length films.
The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded in Omaha, Nebraska, which had built up a black community, mostly of workers attracted to its industrial jobs. The brothers George and Noble Johnson founded the company in the summer of 1915 to produce films for African-American audiences. Noble was a small-time actor, and George worked for the post office in a federal civil service job. In 1915, Noble Johnson became president of the company; Clarence A. Brooks, secretary; Dr. James T. Smith, treasurer, and; Dudley A. Brooks was assistant secretary. Lincoln Films quickly built a reputation for making films that showcased African-American talent in the full sphere of cinema. In less than a year the company relocated to Los Angeles.
On 20 January 1917, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was incorporated in California with a capitalization of $75,000. At the time, the officers of the company were Noble M. Johnson, president;Dr. James Thomas Smith, who was the vice-president and treasurer; Clarence A. Brooks, secretary; Dudley A. Brooks, assistant secretary; and Willes O. Tyler, attorney. The only white member of the organization was Harry Gant, cameraman, a personal friend of Noble Johnson who had worked with him at Universal Pictures. Noble Johnson kept his job at Universal and operated Lincoln on the side. In 1918, his brother George P. Johnson became general booking manager handling all correspondence and newspaper advertising.
“The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition”
Lincoln’s first two-reel feature film release was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), Drama; following is the storyline:
- “James Burton, is a Tuskegee graduate who leaves his father’s farm and his girlfriend. Burton’s departure allows him to seek his fortune out West on the California oil fields. When he arrives in California, Burton is denied an oil drilling job because he is black. This is the major conflict in the film, but Burton surmounts it by saving the life of a wealthy white oilman’s daughter. The father rewards him with a job. Later, the owner discovers that Burton has a degree in civil engineering and makes Burton the head of an oil expedition. Through a series of discoveries, Burton realizes that the geological features of his father’s farm resemble those of the California oil fields. He returns home, becomes wealthy through his discovery of oil on family land, and weds his hometown sweetheart.”
The actor who played Burton was the popular Noble Johnson. The supporting cast included Beulah Hall, Lottie Boles, Clarence Books, Gertrude Chrisman, Bessie Mathews, and George W. Reed.
“Trooper of Company K”
The first film was highly successful, and the Lincoln company prepared for a larger and better second production. At the time, 1916, the public’s attention was focused upon the “Carrizal Incident” which occurred during the Mexican Expedition. The incident involved a battle in which Troops K and C of the “famous fighting 10th” United States all-black cavalry were nearly wiped out. To take advantage of the publicity, Lincoln decided that its next release would be based on that famous battle.
Poster: The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916)
The Trooper of Company K (1917) was a Western adventure. Lincoln was able to hire a number of ex-troopers of the 9th and 10th cavalries. The company rented supplies and uniforms and guns from other firms in Hollywood. Lincoln used more than 300 extras in the production. Noble Johnson (Joe), Beulah Hall (Clara), and Jimmy Smith (Jimmie) starred in the film. Following is the plot:
- “Shiftless” Joe buys flowers for Clara, a high school girl of a good family who, because of a kind act of his, has taken a charitable interest in him; she advises him on bettering his life. Jimmy, an ardent admirer of Clara, is given good clothes and spending money by his mother’s work as a laundress, and he is quite a favorite among his friends. Jimmy is not pleased with Clara’s interest in Joe and ignores him. Clara encourages Joe to get a job, but he is late to work because of helping animals. Anxious to make good, Joe becomes excited and makes a botch of the whole affair; the foreman fires him. Joe seeks Clara to tell of his ill luck, and finds her with Jimmy at home. She is disappointed but Jimmy is disgusted. Clara suggests that he enlist as a soldier, which Joe does.
- Several months later, Joe is part of Company K of the Tenth Cavalry near Casas Grandes, Mexico. Jimmy at home is trying to woo Clara. Joe has won the heart of his Captain by his good nature and care of his horse. Company K and Company C are drawn into a fight with Mexican troops at Carrizal. Joe acts as a hero during the fight, rescuing his wounded Captain and ensuring their escape. Reading about him, Clara denounces Jimmy for having made false accusations about the soldier. Decorated for bravery and recommended for promotion, Joe returns home on leave to be welcomed by Clara with open arms.”
Trooper of Company K opened its first engagement at the all-black theatre, the New Angelus, in Los Angeles in 1917, with a week’s run to a near-capacity house. It played to capacity houses from Chicago to Oakland. In New Orleans it broke all records and was shown to mixed audiences at the New Ivy and People’s Theatres, two white theatres which had never before shown a film produced by and featuring blacks.
In the mid-1910s, several members of the black community established their own film studios. The increased cost of movie making in the 1920s and the widespread economic effects of the Great Depression forced most independent black film producers out of business. The African-American community did not have the financial resources, especially in hard times, to sustain independent black film enterprises.
In 1923, the company announced that its next production would be The Heart of a Negro, to feature Clarence Brooks, Edna Morton, and Lawrence Chenault. A few weeks after this announcement, Lincoln Motion Picture Company discontinued operations. George P. Johnson completed 37 years as a postal employee. He compiled an extensive collection related to blacks in the movie business, which is now held by the UCLA Research Library. Noble M. Johnson (1881–1978), continued his acting career and appeared in more than 140 movies from 1915–1950.
- The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916)
- Trooper of Company K (1917)
- The Law of Nature (1917)
- A Man’s Duty (1919)
- By Right of Birth (1921)
- African Americans in Omaha, Nebraska
- “The Lincoln Motion Picture company, a first for Black cinema!” The African American Registry. Retrieved 8/4/07.
- (2007) “African American History in the American West: Timeline”, Black Past Website, hosted at University of Washington
- Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (1997), p. 27
- Flamming, Douglas. Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, University of California Press, p. 89 (2005) – ISBN 0-520-23919-9
- Reid, Mark A. Redefining Black Film, page 9
- Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (1997), page 30
- Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (1997), pp. 92-93
- Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (1997), page 31
- California Eagle, Los Angeles, California newspaper, March 19, 1937
- ^ Jump up to:a b Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, page 39
- Noble M. Johnson Filmography