In 1915 Birth of a Nation was released, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and poisoned the minds of Americans with false stereotypes of Black people. African Americans across the country were livid, many even protested. Life for Black people was hard enough but the new emerging film industry had the power to entrench racism in the American psyche in a way never before seen. Noble and George Johnson decided to protest in a very different way and that was to start their own film production studio so that they could combat lies with truth and Black excellence.
Emmett J. Scott was a trusted aide to Booker T. Washington who was enraged by the propaganda found in Birth of a Nation. Scott decided to answer that film with his own, Birth of a Race. Scott had a clear vision for what the film ought to be:
“The Birth of a Race, the true story of the Negro — his life in Africa, his enslavement, his freedom, his achievements — together with his past, present and future relations with his white neighbor. It will bring close the future in which the races — all races — will see each other as they are.”
Scott hired the Selig Polyscope Company to shoot the film, a company run by film pioneer (and Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree) William Selig. Some historians believe that Selig shot half of the movie, just as Scott envisioned it. However, halfway through production, all the footage was thrown away. Selig’s racism simply couldn’t stomach Scott’s vision. A 1918 review by Variety said explicitly, “A large quantity of film, depicting certain phases of the advancement of the Negro race, was dropped.” If Black people were to gain the freedom to tell their stories, they would have to do it themselves.
With this in mind, Noble and George Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. The company is regarded as the first all Black movie production unit in the country and the first to produce “race films,” films produced for Black audiences, featuring Black casts. The company was founded in Omaha, Nebraska but relocated to Los Angeles, a year later. In all the company produced five films between 1916 and 1921. Generally, their films were limited to “special showings” in Black churches and other small venues, such as schools and “Colored Only” theaters. The Johnsons built a reputation for a showcasing Black talent in the film industry, a true rarity at that time.
Production costs ultimately overwhelmed the company, which simply couldn’t get the support it needed to continue expansion. Ironically, many of the larger, white production companies began to make films for Black audiences, along with other Black entrepreneurs. The Johnsons, however, changed the landscape of Hollywood forever, paving the way for Black producers and studio owners, like Tyler Perry.