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?