Piece of earliest known Black-produced film found hiding in plain sight

UChicago scholar helps identify silent-era cinema fragment embedded in another film

The closer film scholars looked at a clip of “By Right of Birth” (1921), the more something seemed off. The Black-produced silent film was set in Los Angeles and Oklahoma. So why was an intertitle card surrounded by saguaro cacti? Why was actor Noble Johnson in the background despite no evidence he appeared in the film? Why didn’t this scene make sense? 

Cara Caddoo, a professor of film and race at Indiana University in Bloomington, guessed the strange scene could be from another film. To solve the mystery, Caddoo consulted with UChicago Assoc. Prof. Allyson Nadia Field, a prominent scholar of early African American film who identified the first Black on-screen kiss.  

Using comparative stills and archival materials, the scholars agreed that embedded within “By Right of Birth” was a 15-second clip of an entirely different film. “The Trooper of Troop K” (1916) starred a military-garbed Noble Johnson, was set in Mexico and had been released years earlier. No footage was previously known to still exist.  

Footage from the film 'By Right of Birth' (1921). Around the 2:28 mark, a short scene from 'The Trooper of Troop K' begins. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

“Once I realized we were looking at actual surviving footage from ‘The Trooper of Troop K,’ I was both stunned and elated,” Field said. The earliest known footage of Black-produced cinema had been hiding in plain sight.  

Unspooling a mystery 

African American filmmaking started in the early 20th century with silent films made for segregated audiences. Most footage from that period has been lost.  

One of the earliest Black-owned studios was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which made “race films” featuring mainly Black casts from 1916-1922. At the company’s helm were two brothers: George P. Johnson and Noble Johnson, arguably “the first Black movie star,” according to Field.  

All of Lincoln’s Motion Picture Company’s films were considered lost except for pieces of “By Right of Birth” (1921)—footage very familiar to scholars of American cinema.  

“We often teach this fragment in our classes,” Field said. “As the only surviving footage made by the Lincoln company, it’s exceptionally valuable.” 

The surviving four minutes is a jumble of short scenes and intertitle cards with little narrative cohesion. “Silent era cinema can be idiosyncratic, and race film is no exception,” says Field and Caddoo in a Library of Congress blog post. “However, something still didn’t add up.” 

About two minutes into the clip, the scene abruptly shifts from a woman on a horse to two actors sitting on a front stoop. Jimmie Smith and Beulah Hall, both well-known actors of the time, were not known to have been in this film. 

But it’s the flash of a superimposed couple—visible for only seconds—that tipped off Caddoo and Field. The man wearing a khaki hat was unmistakably Noble Johnson. This was strange, because Johnson left Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1918 for a decades-long career in mainstream Hollywood.  

Caddoo traveled to the George P. Johnson archive in California to confirm her suspicions. Though there was no other footage, Cadddo and Field used movie posters, stills and articles to compare with the film fragment. Everything pointed to “Trooper.” 

At the center of the plot is a love triangle. A kind-hearted, but inept Joe (Noble Johnson) competes with popular Jimmy (Jimmie Smith) for the affections of Clara (Beulah Hall). Joe joins the army and is eventually dispatched to Mexico to fight in the Battle of Carrizal. After saving his captain, Joe returns as a hero and reunites with Clara. 

“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,” writes Field and Caddoo.  

“This small fragment of ‘The Trooper of Troop K’ represents the earliest known material to survive that was produced by a Black-owned and operated film company,” Field said. “It’s valuable as a piece of historical evidence of Lincoln filmmaking—from the use of special effects to the earliest surviving screen appearance of Noble Johnson.” 

Caddoo and Field worked with the Library of Congress to properly catalog the “Trooper” fragment. The re-discovery will help future researchers of the Lincoln Company’s filmography or Johnson’s career.  

“Bringing fresh eyes—and new audiences—to old media helps us see it anew, and better appreciate the innovation and skills of these early filmmakers who worked in a medium that was not hospitable to African Americans,” Field said. “Their ingenuity is a constant source of inspiration for me and I’m excited to share it with viewers now.”