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S&A 2013 Highlights: Noble Johnson And Frank Silvera – The Original ‘Race Shifters’

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

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.

had one of the most impressive and longest careers as a
supporting actor appearing in some 150
, 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
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

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

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

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

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


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.


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


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

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.


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.

Ed Silvera

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

W.B. Reeves

Thank you for your article. I’ve been interested in learning more about both Johnson and Silvera for some time and this was really helpful.
As far as their playing roles of other racesand ethnicities,I can only note that this was a common practice with character actors at the time. It was part of the job description. One need only consider the career of Lon Chaney Sr., who was a close friend and former schoolmate of Johnson, to see that.
It’s also worth noting the career of Boris Karloff, often represented as a prototypical Englishman, who was actually of mixed British and East Indian ancestry, who likewise played numerous cross racial roles. Notably in The Mummy where he actually shared the screen with Noble Johnson.

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