Meet the Black Actor Who Changed Hollywood

Meet the Black Actor Who Changed Hollywood

Noble Johnson (far left) in a scene from "The Mad Doctor of Market Street" (1942).

Why you should care

Because Noble Johnson took what Hollywood offered and turned it into the first Black studio. 

The chief of Skull Island draws closer and closer to the camera, an exotic figure in a cape and feathered headdress, his Black face streaked with white paint. He is the king of men here, grunting at the white explorers. The visitors are unsure whether to stay or go. The chief warns them of the monster, the creature they call Kong.

This scene from King Kong might be Noble Johnson’s most famous cinematic moment, but it definitely wasn’t the apex of a long and varied career. By the time the movie came out in 1933, Johnson had been acting for almost 20 years, often cast as a native chief, a Native American or in other character roles that typified Hollywood’s racial attitudes over the past century. But with the money earned from those roles, Johnson formed the first African-American film company and by acting in so many films, he became the first star of Black cinema.

The first time Blacks were portrayed positively in film was in Lincoln Motion Pictures.

Clinton Boyd, curator, Montague Collection

Noble Johnson grew up in Colorado, where his father was a well-known horse trainer. Johnson loved the animals too, and at 15, he left school to work with his father, eventually becoming a cowboy and traveling across the country to work with horses. The story that Johnson and his brother, George, told was that when an actor was hurt on set during the filming of The Eagle’s Nest (1915), the producers needed someone to fill in as a Native American. With his knowledge of horses and rugged good looks, Johnson stepped into the role and what turned out to be his life’s work. In his first two years in the young industry, the Colorado cowboy racked up nine film credits.

While his roles were small, Johnson noticed that Hollywood was missing something. In the aftermath of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and other films that featured stereotypical African-Americans characters, Johnson saw an opportunity for self-representation in Hollywood. There was an audience, and there was a place to show the movies at a time when Black-owned theaters were opening across the country — call it an unintended consequence of segregation. The only thing missing was Black-produced films with Black actors in lead roles. To fill that need, Johnson teamed with fellow actor Clarence Brooks and pharmacist James Thomas Smith in 1917 to officially incorporate the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. (LMPC).

The launch of the company was national news in the Black community. The company’s first film was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, starring Johnson as a Tuskegee Institute engineering graduate denied a job because of his race. “The first time Blacks were portrayed positively in film was in Lincoln Motion Pictures,” says Clinton Boyd, curator of the Montague Collection, which contains archives from LMPC. Soon, Johnson’s younger brother, George, got involved with film distribution in Midwestern cities that were seeing an influx of African-Americans during the first years of the Great Migration.

Black theaters first opened to book Black plays and musical performances but soon doubled as movie theaters. These showcases — and the film companies that followed — were about more than just commerce, explains Michelle Scott, professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Being a Black theater owner is being dedicated to race work,” Scott says. “You’ve given a whole segment of the population jobs, and it becomes more of an uplift mission than just entertainment.”

The company also produced newsreels featuring Black businesses, highlighting the strength of the community. The Baltimore Afro-American reported, “The company was organized primarily to meet this condition and to furbish to the ambitious young men and women of the race an unexpected field.”

A year in, Johnson resigned from the company with a letter to his brother to explain that it was “nothing personal,” claiming the company needed someone with business acumen at the top. While heading LMPC, Johnson was still taking roles in serials, short and feature films with Universal. Boyd says that documents in the Montague Collection suggest Johnson was forced to choose between working for his own company and working for Universal, and so he chose to focus on acting. He subsequently landed parts in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923), Moby Dick (1930) with John Barrymore, The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff and a hundred other films. Even if Johnson’s roles were small, Black-owned newspapers were sure to mention whenever he had a role. The LMPC folded in 1922, but not before changing the landscape of American film.

Race seemed to be an ambiguous, fluctuating question for Johnson — on- and off-screen. Universal didn’t seem to care outright: A studio directory from 1919 describes him simply as “6-foot-1, 210 pounds, dark complexion, dark hair, brown eyes.” And even if studio bosses and colleagues knew Johnson was African-American, “you have to kind of keep it to yourself when you’re playing in that kind of business,” George Johnson told an interviewer from UCLA’s oral history of film initiative.

And he did keep it to himself. By the end of his life, he went by Mark Noble, and in Forgotten Faces of Fantastic Films, James T. Coughlin writes that Noble Johnson destroyed his own film memorabilia and didn’t want any of the material relating to his life that was in his brother George’s collection to be publicly displayed at the UCLA Library.

The racial question seemed more complex in Noble’s private life. His World War I draft card was first marked ”White,” which was then crossed out and “Negro” checked off, while a census taker in 1920 noted his race as “Indian” and his wife’s as “White.” Columbia University film professor Jane Gaines reports that when Johnson died in 1978 at 96, his death certificate said “White.” Maybe Johnson had to shuffle the race cards to make it in Hollywood, or maybe he just didn’t believe in putting himself in one box.

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