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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part II: Noble Johnson

Return to Against the Grain Archive
Added: 09/16/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images  were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Noble M. Johnson, the first great figure in black film history, was born in Missouri in 1881 but grew up in Colorado Springs. While attending public school there, he reportedly was befriended by Lon Chaney Sr., a relationship that would be renewed in the 1920s after Johnson became a Hollywood fixture. He quit school in 1896 and followed in his father's footsteps by traveling around the Western horseracing circuit, training horses, and honing his skills a wrangler and cowboy.

Sometime after returning home in 1909, he impressed local filmmakers with his 6'2" 215 lb. athletic frame and was hired to fill in for an injured actor, playing an Indian in a Lubin Western, the first of scores of Native-American roles he would play over the next five decades.

After making films for Lubin over the next few years, he felt confident enough to pool assets with his brother George and other black entrepreneurs to form the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. Johnson acted as company president and starred in its first three films including Lincoln's initial offering, THE REALIZATION OF A NEGRO'S AMBITION, the first film to appeal directly to a black audience.

At the same time he was also getting work in Hollywood serials and was pressured by Universal to choose between them and Lincoln. Among the films he moonlighted in were INTOLERANCE and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. When Johnson opted for a full time Hollywood career in 1920, Lincoln struggled without him and finally went out of business a year later.

Johnson was cast in a great variety of supporting roles during the silent era. Unfortunately many of these films no longer exist, but some of the more notable he appeared in were FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, THE NAVIGATOR, BEN-HUR, KING OF KINGS, and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.

Among his most memorable featured roles in the 20s are as Friday in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE and as Uncle Tom in TOPSY AND EVA.

In an era when many black roles were played by white actors in blackface, Johnson made a career of refusing to be ethnically typecast. Besides his many appearances as Native Americans, Johnson also played Sikhs, Polynesians, Afghans, Malaysians, Mexicans, Caribs, Arabs, Sherpas, Latinos, Hindus, and even occasionally Caucasians.

(Above: Johnson appeared as the Polynesian Queequeg in the 1930 MOBY DICK with John Barrymore.)

Johnson was in even more demand in the Sound Era, repeatedly working for such noted directors as John Ford, Frank Capra, and Cecil B. DeMille (four times).

Johnson's 1930s films for Merian C. Cooper are still associated with the actor... as the Amahaggar Chief in SHE (1935), Ivan, the Cossack, in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), and the Melanesian chief in KING KONG.

Although these roles were relatively brief, they were impressive.

Two other roles he is closely associated with from the horror genre are 1932's THE MUMMY, in which he played "The Nubian," and THE GHOST BREAKERS, in which he played "The Zombie."

Noble Johnson decided to retire in 1950, not long after appearing as Chief Red Shirt in John Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. Unfortunately by the time he died in 1978 at the age of 96, few obituaries duly credited him with being the first great pioneer of African-American film."
-Gabe Taverney

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