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S&A 2013 Highlights: Noble Johnson And Frank Silvera - The Original 'Race Shifters'

by Sergio
January 6, 2014 3:31 PM
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Noble Johnson

On the heels of my recent piece about Dwayne Johnson (HERE) who I described as a “race shifter,” it brought to mind another movie race shifter who you could say paved the way for Johnson. I’m referring to that other Johnson by the name of Noble.

Noble Johnson had one of the most impressive and longest careers as a supporting actor appearing in some 150 films, from the early silent period, starting in 1915, well into the sound era, appearing in his last film, in 1950, some 28 years before his death. But he was also, along with Oscar Micheaux, a true black film pioneer.

Back in 1915, before Micheaux started making his own films in 1919, Noble, along with his brother George, founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was created to produce and distribute all-black films. The brothers' goal for their company, they stated at the time, was to "encourage black pride" and to present a different image than the usual stereotyped, degrading images of black people at the time.

Their company made five films - The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916), Trooper of Company K (1917), The Law of Nature (1917), A Man's Duty (1919) and By Right of Birth (1921) with Noble starring in all of those films.

The pictures were financially very successful at first, though it was a real struggle. Despite the success of the earlier films, it was hard to raise money, and Noble, who by this time was a contract player for Universal, had to use his salary to help funds projects. There were also distribution problems with the Lincoln Company going up against the growing power of bigger film studios.

Things were further complicated by the fact that Universal didn’t exactly take too kindly to one of their contract players, in effect, working for the competition, and gave Noble an ultimatum - it's either us or Lincoln. And since he was getting a regular paycheck from Universal while things were iffy, at best, with his own company, Noble felt he had no choice.

By 1923, the Johnson brothers ended their production company, and Noble continued his acting career. However, because of his light skin and not clearly defined ethnic features, Noble played all sorts of ethnic roles from African tribal chiefs such as in King Kong, to Polynesians, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Indians, an Eskimo and Native Americans (lots of Native Americans). And occasionally he even played a white person, such as in the 1935 RKO Pictures thriller, Most Dangerous Game, where he played a sinister Russian named Ivan (pictured above).

Similarly, the Jamaican born Frank Silvera (pictured below) was known as “The man with a thousand faces,” who, in his long and extensive film (some 76 film and TV roles) and stage career, played all sorts of ethnic types, usually Italians (such as in Roger Corman’s 1967 film The St. Valentine Day’s Massacre) and countless roles as Latinos (especially as Mexicans) in films like Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata with Marlon Brando.

But it’s worth pondering if either Johnson or Silvera had any second thoughts about being a “race shifter,” moving from one ethnicity to the next. They were, no doubt, hard working actors, sometimes appearing in several films a year, and making a good living as actors, something that any actor would be grateful for.

If they insisted that they would only play, what would have been considered “black” roles at the time, one could imagine that they would have been stuck playing the usual offensive, stereotyped roles that practically any black actor would have been stuck doing. On top of that, they also would have found their choice of roles very limited indeed.

Neither Silvera nor Johnson ever hid the fact that they were black actors, but rather took advantage of their situations for their own benefit, to produce bodies of work that made them the envy of other supporting and character actors during their long careers. 

But do you think they did the right thing or not?

And suppose you were in their situation, what would you have done?

Frank Silvera

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  • Blackie | August 20, 2014 1:07 PMReply

    These guys played people of ethnic groups that had ANCIENT Black genes. What's that say about the people Johnson and Silvera played?

  • Blackman | January 8, 2014 1:02 PMReply

    Oscar Micheaux was a Dark Skin HATING pervert. All his old pic have women and men that look as White as possible. YUCK. When we studied him in college we were all deplored. He essentially told 90% of the Black population that they were WORTHLESS. He had it backwards.

    Just like some many of you DARK SKIN hating people. Dark skin is the FIRST skin on this planet. Black folks blood is the ONLY blood that can save White people. And this is why so many of black teenagers come up missing.

  • squeesh | March 13, 2014 6:57 AM

    Oh, quit tripping over Michaux's apparent color issues. In the time and era he grew up in, his attitudes toward color were unfortunately typical for those times. The man did,in fact, blaze a trail for black filmmakers, on less than half the resources, and far less than half the budget of an indie movie today. What the hell was "perverted" about his films? Puh-lease--the man had to write,produce,direct AND distribute his own films, mainly because there was no way he was gonna get into racist Hollywood at the time--how many filmmakers even do that today? Not too many. I don't even get your last sentence, or what it's supposed to be connected to.

  • dnwilliams | January 7, 2014 5:47 AMReply

    There's a book in this. Or, at least, a longer piece of writing, inclusive of the Rock/Diesel stuff.

  • slicy | April 8, 2013 2:58 AMReply

    Sweet----nice to see these two pioneers get their props---forgot about Noble Johnson and how he'd done all that stuff. I've seen Frank Silvera in a number of old programs and finally saw UPTIGHT some months ago for the first time---enjoyed it--has there ever been a review of it on this site? I think there should, because it's so obscure,despite its subject matter---not sure why.

  • tolly devlin | April 6, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    It was only when I saw Jules Dassin's Uptight that i realized that Frank Silvers was African American. Later I heard how he ran an theater & acting school in Harlem. I had seen him in so many filmss & tv shows playing Italians, Mexicans ( thats him threatening Paul Newman in Hombre) & run of the mill white folks. I recently saw a Randolph Scott western from the fifties in which he was a black member of the outlaw crew. Noble Johnson I suspected but did not know due to the variety of his credits. Thanks Sergio.

  • Ava | April 8, 2013 6:35 PM

    Those of us of Jamaican background and theater background (of which I am both) know well of Frank Silvera and all that that he was about. As a former resident of Harlem, I am very familiar with the Frank Silver Theater Workshop. So Silvera's identity/ethnicity was never any mystery to me, then again I was born many years after his film career.

  • kwan | April 5, 2013 2:31 PMReply

    yes i would have done the same thing! even now i would. Zoe saladana does it all the time! I dont see the harm in being another race in a film? You're an actor, it sometimes goes with the job. And like you said, he would've been in deragotory roles if he asked for black only roles.

  • None of Your Business | April 5, 2013 8:48 PM

    Kwan, how does Zoe do it? She is not racially ambiguous. She is clearly a Black woman.

  • Ed Silvera | April 4, 2013 10:52 PMReply

    Thank you for bringing these two brothers to light.

    I think that Noble and Frank have dissimilar situations because as Noble was doing his thing, Frank was just a baby and the sociology centered around their struggle was different. In some instances quite dramatically.

    However there are more similarities than differences and their story mirrors many of our great black entertainers of all shades of color. Think of Lena Horne, Steppin Fetchit, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniels, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Poitier and the list could go on. They all had to play roles that were either demeaning or they had to fight to reserve some form of dignity in the roles they were given. But these brave souls knew, I believe, that as far as the cinema was concerned, we as a people had to crawl before we could walk, walk before we could run. I believe they also knew that the power of the arts go hand and hand in the struggle for freedom…the power of that tool. And so, they were the soldiers on the front line that willingly took the first bullets.

    It has been documented several times over that Frank Silvera used the notoriety he gained in Hollywood to further fellow black actors. He is a legend in black theater and any black actor over the age of fifty will tell you that he was a powerful influence. They attended his workshops and participated in his theater projects. Morgan Freeman, for instance, helped start the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop in Harlem in 1973 and it still exists. A who’s who of talent has walked through those doors.

    And so, I too am profoundly influence by that pedigree in my own work. I can only say thanks, Cuz. And thanks to all those who came along with you. #channelingthemuse

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