The Lincoln Motion Picture company, a first for Black cinema


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Date: 
Wed, 1916-05-24

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded on this date in 1916, the first movie company owned and controlled by Black filmmakers.

Lincoln was the creation of African American actor Noble Johnson and his brother George Johnson (a postal employee in Omaha). Lincoln Films built a reputation for making films that showcased African American talent in the full sphere of cinema. Noble Johnson was president of the company, the secretary was actor Clarence A. Brooks. Dr. James T. Smith was treasurer, and Dudley A. Brooks was assistant secretary. Incorporated in January 1917, Lincoln Motion Picture Company was given approval to issue 25,000 shares of common stock on April 30, 1917.

The first Lincoln production was a drama called "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916). The second was titled, "A Trooper of Troop K," (1917), which dealt with a massacre of Black troops in the Army's 10th Cavalry during the American operation against Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916. Although the Johnson brothers wanted the films to play to wider audiences, they were mostly booked in special locations at churches and schools and the few "Colored Only" theaters in America. By 1920, the Lincoln company had completed five films, including "A Man's Duty" (1919), but it proved to be a minor business operation.

Noble Johnson gave up his position with the company when he became a contract actor at Universal Pictures and Smith assumed the company presidency. Lincoln productions accepted an offer for financial backing by a White investor, P. H. Updike, in Los Angeles. George Johnson supervised the marketing and promotion of what would become Lincoln's most ambitious project, their film "By Right of Birth," begun in October 1921. The script was written by Dora Mitchell based on a story by George Johnson. Booker T. Washington was also seen in a cameo role. Although Blacks managed the Lincoln Film Company, Updike had doubts about “By Right of Birth” as a moneymaking proposition.

Johnson rented the Trinity Auditorium (now the Embassy Auditorium) in the Embassy Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for the evenings of June 22 and 23, 1921. Johnson divided the house into ten sections and "engaged ten of the prettiest girls we could find" to sell tickets. In two weeks the women managed to sell out the two performances. The affair was a success, but the effort did little to improve the overall commercial prospects for the film. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company began its existence with great expectations. White audiences were needed and simply were not interested at the time.

Without a wider audience, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was doomed to failure and “By Right of Birth” proved to be the company's swan song. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company lasted until 1921.

Reference:
Black First:
2,000 years of extraordinary achievement
by Jessie Carney Smith
Copyright 1994 Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI
ISBN 0-8103-9490-1

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