The grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios in Southwest Atlanta was a momentous achievement for the writer, director and filmmaker. But he was not the first to seek complete control of his work in the motion picture industry.
Established well ahead of Perry’s feat was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, considered by many as the first all-Black movie production company.
Brothers Nobel and George Johnson founded the film company in Omaha, Nebraska in response to the racism that cropped up in the wake of the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” in 1916. George, a student at Hampton University, was inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth” philosophy and desired to use his influence to uplift other Black people. Nobel moved west hoping to make it big in Hollywood as an actor.
Lincoln is considered the first outfit to produce so-called “race films,” a sub-genre of movies geared towards Black audiences which normally featured all-Black casts.
The company’s time was unfortunately short-lived as it only produced and distributed five films, the first of those being “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition.” The films relied on small screenings inside churches and in the handful of Blacks-only theaters across the country and the business model was not a sustainable one.
As was the case for many Black companies of the early 20th Century, archival footage has been lost to history and much of Lincoln’s catalog is no longer available. Bits and pieces of footage do exist in the Library of Congress and after George’s passing in 1977, UCLA obtained six decades of clippings, photos and other research related to Lincoln and Black filmmaking.
Noble did act in bit roles, while George documented the rise of Black-owned film companies that exploded in number after Lincoln’s shuttered for good in 1922. By the ‘40s, literally hundreds of short-format and feature-length films from Black production companies were released to the wider public.