On this day, December 17, George and Noble Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. It was the first black-owned production company that produced films exclusively for African Americans.
Among the first organized black filmmakers, it became the first producer of so-called race movies. Lincoln’s goal was to offer audiences positive African American images. Their first production was titled, “The Realization of a Negro Ambition,” produced in 1916.
What made this unique at the time was how they were able to raise money to start the company. On April 30, 1917 the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was given approval to issue 25,000 shares of common stock. They ended up raising $75,000 to begin making films.
The company stated its purpose was to “encourage black pride” while upholding the social order of the period. It wanted to correct the distortions portrayed in white films while accurately depicting black reality and fostering a positive black image. Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced mostly family-oriented pictures in its three shorts and two feature-length films.
The first Lincoln production was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (released in mid 1916), a two-reel film which company publicity releases proclaimed was a “Drama of love and adventure, a picture with a good moral, a vein of clean comedy and beautiful settings.”
The second Lincoln production was a three-reeler titled A Trooper of Troop K (released January, 1917), which dealt with a massacre of Black troops in the Army’s 10th Cavalry during the U. S. campaign against Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916.
It’s biggest production was a six-reel drama By Right of Birth (released October, 1921), that had Booker T. Washington in a cameo role. It was marketed as a film that would appeal to a broader audience and not just Blacks.
White audiences simply were not interested at the time, even though The Los Angeles Examiner noted with somewhat condescending amazement that By Right of Birth “ . . . offers proof that colored players can develop histrionic talent above that required for straight comedy.” 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 increased cost of movie making in the 1920s and the widespread economic effects of the Great Depression forced most independent black film producers out of business. The African-American community did not have the financial resources, especially in hard times, to sustain independent black film enterprises.