We don’t have copies of the vast majority of silent films, due to poor storage conditions, archive fires, or deliberate destruction of dangerous nitrate material (and/or recovery of silver stock), so I only have a fragment of “By Right of Birth” with which to evaluate The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by brothers George and Noble Johnson in reaction to “The Birth of a Nation.” LMPC was, as far as we know, the first all-black movie production company, and it lasted from 1916-1921.
Due to racism, they were never able to secure distribution outside of the African American community, even though they were making films intended for a broad audience, with storylines that should have been relatable to just about anyone. But they did inspire a generation of black filmmakers to throw their hats in the ring.
From this fragmented clip, two things stand out:
(1) the bit at the beginning where a guy is tired of walking, and his shoes are smoking to show his feet are hot, and he takes off his mustache to cool down – comedy gold.
(2) the acting, makeup, and lighting are much, much more naturalistic than I have ever seen in a film from this period. Consequently, this film feels much less old than it should. I don’t know whether that’s a reflection of the talents of the Johnson brothers, or whether it suggests that black performers of the time weren’t as contaminated by the extremely mannered theatrical styles that still dominated white performances.
It’s hard to generalize, because there aren’t a lot of other surviving films from the same period that have african americans both in front of and behind the camera; the closest I know of is “Body and Soul” by Oscar Micheaux (1925), which is more stagey but not maximum stagey. So I’m inclined to credit the Johnsons a fair amount as visionaries who saw the direction film was going to go.
Anyway, for black history month day 5, I suggest you watch this short clip for at least long enough to get to the mustache gag.