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Looking (and Looking Again) at Black Film History

This is a guest post by Allyson Nadia Field, Associate Professor of Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Chicago and Cara Caddoo, Associate Professor of Cinema & Media Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.

While recent decades have seen a proliferation of films written, directed, and produced by African Americans, the legacy of these endeavors stretches back over a century. African American filmmaking began in the silent era where independent producers made movies, known as race films, for segregated audiences. Like the vast majority of silent era film productions, most race films of this period are lost. In fact, hardly any material survives that was shot by Black filmmakers prior to 1920.[1] One of the first and most important of these ventures was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, helmed by George P. Johnson and his brother Noble, an actor who would become one of the most prolific character actors in the Hollywood studio system in the first half of the 20th century and, arguably, the first Black movie star.

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company made five feature films and two newsreels from 1916 to 1922. To date, all have been considered lost, apart from four surviving minutes of their last feature, “By Right of Birth” (1921), archived at the Library of Congress, much of which is severely deteriorated due to nitrate decomposition.[2] While the fragments are somewhat narratively incoherent, this material is nonetheless invaluable as a rare surviving example of early race filmmaking and the only representation of Noble Johnson—the star of the company—in a Lincoln production.

However, it was that glimpse of Noble Johnson that led us to conclude the “By Right of Birth” fragment contains within it a fifteen second clip from another film called “The Trooper of Troop K” (1916), making it the earliest surviving footage produced by a Black film company. This is the story of how I made that discovery with Ally’s help, and how it requires a rewriting of Black film historiography.

I began by focusing on a scene where the actors Jimmie Smith and Beulah Hall sit on a stoop outside of a southern California style bungalow; it’s at about 2:27 in the file below. A title card decorated with images of cacti reads:

“Don’t believe that stuff that Joe writes. I know those soldiers. You would find him flirting with some Chili Queen.”

When the film cuts back to Jimmie and Beulah, we get the briefest glimpse of Noble Johnson. It’s easy to miss—a brief superimposed fade-in and out iris shot in the upper left corner of the frame. However fleetingly visible, Noble is unmistakable. He is dressed in army khakis and hat, looking affectionately at a woman with a large flower in her hair and a fringed shawl—is this the “Chili Queen” and are we witnessing the supposed flirting?[3]

Noble Johnson (left rear), Jimmie Smith, and Beulah Hall in "The Trooper of Troop K"

Noble Johnson (left rear), Jimmie Smith, and Beulah Hall in “The Trooper of Troop K”

We have watched this footage many times, taught it in our classes, written about it in our scholarship. Yet so much about the surviving footage remained a mystery and not just because of the fleeting glimpse of Noble. What role does this scene play in the narrative of “By Right of Birth”? Silent era cinema can be idiosyncratic, and race film is no exception. However, something still didn’t add up.

“By Right of Birth” tells the story of a young woman (Anita Reynolds), who learns that she is a Creek Freedman—the descendant of a former slave who belonged to a member of the Muscogee (Creek) nation. Set in Los Angeles and Oklahoma, the saguaro cacti on the title card seems an odd choice. Indeed, the rest of the film’s intertitles appear on a plain black background. Further, contemporary reviews of the film make no mention of any of these three actors in the picture, not even the movie star Noble. And Noble had resigned from the Lincoln company in 1918, so what is he doing in “By Right of Birth”? Is this recycled footage or is something else going on?

Putting this scene in the broader context of Lincoln’s publicity and exhibition materials, I discovered something remarkable—almost everything in the scene in which Noble appears pointed to a different film: “The Trooper of Troop K,” Lincoln’s second feature produced in 1916. In “Trooper,” a kind-hearted but inept young man “Shiftless Joe” (Noble Johnson) competes with Jimmy (Jimmie Smith) a popular man-about-town, for the affections of a woman named Clara Holmes (Beulah Hall). At Clara’s behest, Joe agrees to join the army (where he’s assured that he’ll get “plenty to eat”) and is eventually dispatched to Mexico with Company K of the Tenth Calvary to fight in the Battle of Carrizal. Joe proves himself by rescuing his captain, is promoted, and eventually reunites with Clara when he returns home.

“The Trooper of Troop K” in 3 parts [motion picture poster], George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977, University of California, Los Angeles, Library Special Collections; https://digital.library.ucla.edu/catalog/ark:/21198/zz0009gjfs

When “Trooper of Troop K” screened in Black and white theaters across the country, audiences thrilled at its action-packed battle scenes and its charismatic star; as one African American newspaper noted, “Mr. Johnson resides in Los Angeles, is unmarried, and quite an athlete, standing six feet one in height, weighing 205 pounds, and is an expert boxer, runner, and horseman.”[4] The film, which proved the most popular of all of the Lincoln’s productions, brought out the “largest attendance” of the year at the Tuskegee Institute’s Chapel in Alabama, and was deemed “the best picture ever produced by a Negro company with an all-star Negro cast,” by the “St. Louis Argus.”[5] At a screening in Marshall, Texas, the audience spontaneously broke out in song during the film’s battle scene.[6]

“The Trooper of Troop K” has long been considered lost. So how does one identify footage from a film when we don’t know what the film looked like in the first place? I identified a flyer for “The Trooper of Troop K” in the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection at the University of California, Los Angeles that features images of several scenes in the film. In one of the images, Jimmie, Noble, and Beulah stand in front of the same house that can be seen in the fragment ascribed to “By Right of Birth.” And Clara wears the identical striped neckerchief to the one we see in the porch scene.

The image from a handbill for “The Trooper of Company K” that enabled Cara to identify the mystery footage. Handbill, “The Trooper of Company K,” c. 1916, Box 55, George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977, University of California, Los Angeles, Library Special Collections.

I shared my detective work with Ally and together we agreed that we were looking at the earliest surviving fragment of Black-produced cinema—made four years before the earliest known surviving footage from a race film company, Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” (1920).

Although only a fraction of “Trooper” has been recovered, this brief scene offers us a glimmer of an extraordinary film that remains just as captivating today as it was to audiences more than a hundred years ago. While we still have many questions about “The Trooper of Troop K,” this footage reminds us that we must continue to look and look again, to reconsider what we have long taken for granted, and to question our long-standing assumptions about the history of American cinema.[7]

** Update: The Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University has more information about this discovery on their blog.

By Right of Birth

  • [1] For more on the range of early Black filmmaking enterprises and early Black cinema’s nonextant condition, see: Allyson Nadia Field, “Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity” (Duke University Press, 2015). For more about the importance assigned to the moving pictures by Black Americans and the pioneering role they played in the making of early American cinema, see Cara Caddoo, “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • [2] Thanks to the work of film scholars Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and to executive producer Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), the fragment has been widely available since 2015 as part of Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African American Cinema.”
  • [3] “Chili queen” was a derogatory term used against Mexican and Mexican American women. If the dialogue is Jimmy’s, which it appears to be, his use of the term would align with his characterization in the film as insensitive and superficial.
  • [4] “New York Age,” Aug. 12, 1916, p.
  • [5] “Unsolicited Words of Commendation from Men Who Know,” Robert R Moten and Emmett J. Scott to Ireland Thomas, “George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977,” University of California, Los Angeles, Library Special Collections, reel 7. “St. Louis Argus,” November 24, 1916, p. 8.
  • [6] “Trooper Scores Again,” “Chicago Defender,” March 10, 1917, p.
  • [7] Archives include the Clarence A. Brooks materials at the Margaret Herrick Library; the Pauline E. Brooks and Abye Family Collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977, at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress; and the Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian (//ask.loc.gov/) about the availability of materials or any other items in our collections. Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center (//www.loc.gov/rr/mopic/).

 

 

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