Even before the film industry made the move west it had become the undisputed king of the entertainment world.
This was a golden time for the American theater with many giants such as the Shuberts, the Barrymores, Maude Adams, David Belasco, Faye Templeton, George M Cohan and a whole host of others leaving an indelible mark upon the stage.
Indeed the overwhelming majority of early film stars like Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were direct products of the theater.
But the reach and impact of the Great White Way was no match for film.
Whereas a successful play could be seen by maybe several hundred people at one time, a single film could be distributed around the globe and reach millions.
The excitement of seeing moving images projected onto a big screen in a darkened theater became and remains a mesmerizing experience.
Many of those early images depended on the very ethnically oriented and racially charged stereotypes of the 19th century. The drunken Irishman, the inscrutable Chinese, the money grubbing Jew, those savage Native Americans and so forth. The only group that seemed to escaped was the Anglo-Saxon who exemplified the virtues of America.
One group that was bound to get hit and hit hard were Black People.
Minstrel shows for instance enjoyed immense popularity for much of the 19th century. Portraying Blacks as stupid fools who had rhythm to be sure but were still stupid fools prone to shiftlessness and childlike behavior. Minstrel shows became the American art form.
Currier and Ives said it with lithographs when they created the Darktown series. It was the perfect medium to take image and buffoonery to the extreme. They also proved to be very popular
The Movie Of A Nation
It was in the air and had been from the beginning of America so it was a foregone conclusion that the film industry would do nothing to reverse this trend. In fact motion pictures became the greatest purveyors of these images.
It all took a quantum leap forward when a master storyteller turned a controversial book into a landmark motion picture.
Going against the grain was tough enough. After Birth of a Nation, it became like climbing an angry mountain in the middle of a mudslide.
The response from Black leaders of the time was all over the map. Some felt given the source it wasn’t all that bad. Didn’t a certain percentage of slaves enjoy slavery and love their masters?
Others like Monroe Trotter blasted this kind of thinking and sought to have the film banned or severely censored. The NAACP led the charge on that front and did have a modicum of success. Overall however they fell well short of their goal.
Birth of a Nation was a box office phenomenon. Theater owners and movie distributors who were making money by the truckloads were not going to stifle their golden goose.
And the reason Nation was a phenomenon is because the majority of White Americans at that time didn’t see anything wrong with it. As President Woodrow Wilson stated: “It’s like writing history with lightning.”
If the leader of the free world is thinking the film is truth personified then trying to explain the glaring inaccuracies to the average person was a fool’s errand. Particularly when they’re angry at you because of what they just saw on screen.
Griffith took the minstrels shows and added the element of danger which had always existed side by side with the stupid fool.
For Griffith and many others slavery was wonderful. Freedom means Blacks are a threat to the “natural order of things” and more importantly White womanhood. Nothing at that time was going to get White America more riled up against Black people than that.
Only a few Black leaders seemed to grasp that the problem was not about a specific film no matter how repugnant. Nation arguably was no better or worse than what was out there at the time just more polished.
After all it was based on a popular book made into a popular play complete with rioting by patrons after seeing it. Given the country’s history and at that time conditions there was no reason to think a movie like Nation wouldn’t be a success.
The image on screen was secondary. The real issue lay in who controlled that image.
Booker T Washington and his chief aide Emmett J Scott understood this even before Griffith’s masterpiece. They knew the only way to change the image of African Americans was to control the production but more importantly the purse strings. In doing so they could create a self sustaining independent Black cinema.
Building this cinema would require money. A great deal of it. Washington for all of his prestige and notoriety didn’t have it like that but his network of rich White patrons did. He could just ask them.
Washington did and was met with a brick wall. His benefactors didn’t mind building him an all Black college but they didn’t seem to have anywhere near the same enthusiasm when it came to helping Black businesses.
Washington died in November of 1915 and Scott eventually went to work for the federal government. It seemed like the idea for an independent Black cinema would stay just that.
But Washington and Scott were not the only ones who realized the importance of an independent Black cinema.
George and Noble Johnson also knew the only way to counteract Birth of A Nation as well as the grotesque caricatures in general was to find some way to do it themselves.
The Lincoln Cinema
Noble Johnson had been working in movies since 1909. A mountain of a man Johnson due to his complexion and the quality of film stock played just about every ethnicity under the sun.
George Johnson was a mailman who wanted to make movies but had no intention of giving up his job to do it. Yet something had to be done and in the summer of 1915 they took the first steps toward creating a Black cinema by forming the The Lincoln Motion Picture Company.
They had no high-powered financiers to back them or a whole lot of money between the two of them. African American movie makers seemed to always find themselves between that particular rock and hard place.
But the brothers (and people like Oscar Micheaux) did have a sense that there was a growing black audience hungry to see themselves finally depicted as something other than three fifths human.
Real people on the silver screen. With that The Johnson Brothers found themselves in the movie producing business.
Burton tries to get a job in the oil fields but gets turned down. However fate steps in as he ends up saving the boss’s daughter when the horses pulling her carriage bolt. The Boss in gratitude gives him a job and a chance to prospect.
After returning home Burton experiences a series of of adventures that test his character. Burton comes through with flying colors and goes on to make his fortune and marry his sweetheart.
It’s the local boy makes good standard fare but with a couple of powerful exceptions. One is showing the racism. Burton didn’t get the job because he wasn’t good enough.
His skin color was the the only deciding factor. To acknowledge that basic fact in the midst of a tidal wave of racial violence is amazing in itself. Showing Burton save a white child afterwards was an act of cinematic bravery. While it has connotations of the faithful servant the image of an actual black man in action given the climate had the potential to push audiences to act out.
Receipts and records of that time are long gone and the film itself has been lost for years but the effect on African-American moviegoers must have been startling.
For here was one of those rare incidents where Black people were portrayed as living breathing human beings and not the product of someone’s racism which by it’s very nature is intended to distort.
Lincoln’s next offering Trooper of Troop K (1917) took one of the most widely held myths about Black Americans and turned it on it’s head.
Noble Johnson plays a lazy and shiftless cavalryman who is redeemed and becomes a hero at the battle of Carrizal.
To show an African-American as hero was mind boggling enough but to show a change of character and in effect shattering a stereotype within a film was astonishing.
Yet regardless of how driven the Johnson Brothers may have been the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was on borrowed time. Scarcity of money and resources which in reality had plagued the Company from the beginning was now in full force.
There was also more competition to deal with. Men like Oscar Micheaux came along to vie with Lincoln for a bigger slice of the black race films market.
And that was exactly the problem George and Noble Johnson as well as other Black filmmakers faced. To his credit Micheaux lasted but in the United States of 1917 pickings were slim. For all their hope that an African-American audience would and could sustain them it never came to pass.
The Johnsons simply had to find some way to appeal to a larger white audience and as was made clear by the success of Nation and the popular entrenchment of racial stereotypes White people overwhelmingly were not interested in seeing Black people as fully drawn characters riding to the rescue.
Still they forged on. In 1917 came The Law of Nature and in 1919 A Man’s Duty. Three films in two years was a glaring indication of the dire straits the Lincoln Motion Picture company found themselves in.
Like Washington and Scott before them the Johnsons discovered there were no takers when it came to helping Black businesses let alone one that wanted to build an independent cinema showing Black people as people.
If they were still unsure after seeing box office returns (they weren’t) then the immediate years before and after Red Summer put the nail in the coffin. In 1921 after releasing Right of Birth the Lincoln Motion Picture company folded. George Johnson continued his job at the post office while Noble would remain a chameleon like figure in movies until his retirement in 1950.
To achieve any sort of progress as far as changing the image and people’s perceptions would take decades of heavy lifting and heartache from many different people of all races. But it had to start somewhere and it’s a testament to George and Noble Johnson that in the face of overwhelming odds they were willing to try.