The [Other] Brothers Johnson

Many know the guitar playing Brothers Johnson of the 70’s and 80’s, but fewer know the filmmaking Brothers Johnson: Noble and George. They founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916 to depict the talent and the intellect of “the Negro as he is in his everyday life.”

They also sought to do damage control: A year earlier, Birth of a Nation made the race—mostly played by whites in black face—look bad, rebooted the previously dormant Klan, and unleashed a parade of other horribles.

Elder brother, Lincoln_motion_pictureNoble, entered films by accident in 1914, according to Valerie Yaros of Screen Actor magazine. He got his first break when a production company, shooting a Western in Colorado Springs, needed a replacement for an injured performer. Tall and athletic, Noble was a skilled horseman and could pass for Native American.

Pursuing a career in acting, he moved to Los Angeles, along with friend and former classmate, Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Noble became the first Black to sign with the newly minted Screen Actors guild in 1933, and went on to accrue upwards of 100 screen credits playing Arabs, Russians, Chinese, Mexicans and (mostly) Native Americans. He funneled income from his steady gig at Universal into Lincoln.

George, a Hampton Institute grad, settled in Omaha, Nebraska, splitting his time between delivering mail, writing scripts, and dealing with exhibitors.

The brothers opened an office on LA’s famed black business row, Central Avenue*, with their film stage several miles to the west.

In their first production, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, Noble stars as an engineer who strikes oil and wins the girl. George called it “the first successful, Class-A Negro motion picture.” Well-placed friends at the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Harlem’s Amsterdam News helped with promotion.trooper

The Trooper of Troop K, the first black Western, which pit the black cavalry against the Mexican army, went over big with audiences. Noble starred in the film, which played Tuskegee, Alabama; New Orleans; Omaha, and beyond.

Though the brothers managed to ride out World War I and the Spanish flu—which killed more people than the war—their coffers dipped painfully low. They’d tried unsuccessfully to get a War Department contract to shoot newsfilm of black troops in France. Distribution remained a  hurdle. George ultimately took a leave from the post office to raise capital and shoo the wolf from the door.

In front of and beorg_lincoln_motion_picturehind the camera, Lincoln Motion Pictures trained a number of young Black actors, screenwriters and camera operators.

George planned street parades and hired comely young ladies to hawk movie tickets at LA’s social venues and churches. But Lincoln’s target market viewed movies as a luxury. Banks refused to give the company a loan, and Oscar Micheaux and other filmmakers began to nip at their heels. Then Universal pressured Noble to stop making race films. Lincoln closed shop in 1922.

While none of the brothers’ films survive in tact, portions of them are in the Library of Congress, and George left a 60-year file of clippings, correspondence and photographs at UCLA’s Research Library when he died in 1977. Noble passed away a year later.

*Central Avenue was “a Booker T. Washington building, two hotels, an employment agency, two newspapers, a confident Watts Colored Independent League, a Dahomey café, a tough NAACP branch, a black baseball league—in short, a swagger and bourgeois pride that concealed vestiges of an oppressed past,”  Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film